Ten years after, a village is reborn with quiet dignity

Six Catholics were shot dead in Loughinisland, Co Down, in June 1994. Their loyalist killers were never caught. David McKittrick reports on a community moving on
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It was an errand of mercy which probably saved Hugh O'Toole's life when the gunmen burst into his pub: he was in Romania, helping out as a volunteer worker to build an orphanage.

The loyalist gunmen showed no mercy in carrying out their attack, 10 years ago on 18 June 1994, repeatedly firing automatic weapons into the backs of their victims.

Today on the anniversary, the question in Loughinisland, and Northern Ireland as a whole, is how to honour the dead while at the same time striving to leave the worst of the past behind.

The six men killed that night, all Catholics, included the oldest victim of the Troubles, Barney Green. Aged 87, pipe-smoking Barney had been designated, in the paramilitary vernacular of the day, a "legitimate target".

He was in his good suit, complete with waistcoat, because there was a big football match on the television: Ireland were playing in the World Cup. Barney was having his usual, a bottle of stout and a Bushmills whiskey, when 10 bullets hit him.

The gunmen had chosen their target with much care but without compassion, for it was all part of a sectarian numbers game. Since republicans had killed some loyalists in Belfast, tribal imperative decreed that Catholics should die in reprisal.

The security forces were on the alert in Belfast, so the gunmen went out of town and wreaked their vengeance on a Catholic country pub. Loughinisland's status as an obscure and peaceful place was its undoing, since nobody dreamt it needed protection.

Its reputation as a place that had escaped the Troubles ended that night as the bullets ripped through O'Toole's pub. One minute the customers were cheering on Ireland: the next they were cut down, their blood mingling on the floor.

The shock and horror at the attack was all the greater because, at the time, the Troubles seemed to be tailing off and there was great hope in the air.

One peacemaker, who at the time was deeply involved in working towards a loyalist ceasefire, today describes Loughinisland as one of the worst days of his life, both because of the death toll and because it seemed to signal the end of the fledgling peace process. "We were so close to a ceasefire," he recalled, "and then that happened. It was horrific, a difficult, fearful time. To be honest about it, for a moment I feared we'd lost all hope - I thought, that's it, gone.

"But then it quickly became clear that loyalist paramilitary leaders were prepared to continue with the process, no matter how awful the backdrop. They went on to declare a ceasefire, which has been of immense value."

And so the process faltered, but did not collapse. In the decade since then, it has seen many high and low points, and some of the hope has been replaced by disillusion. One thing is certain: the process has saved many lives.

Within a few months both republican and loyalist groups declared ceasefires, opening a new phase in Northern Ireland's history; but it was too late for Loughinisland. Today Hugh O'Toole, now approaching 60, stands in the same bar, reluctantly reliving much of the nightmare and its long aftermath.

His pub, the only one in the village, is so small that it feels as much like a house as a bar. Like Loughinisland itself, it is an unassuming place with no airs and graces.

Hugh himself is a quiet man in this exceptionally reticent community. "You never forget," he said with a sigh. "You go in through the door every morning, it's there. People just try and get on with their life, but they never forget. They keep on thinking. Sure nobody could ever recover from that."

Reminders are everywhere. Hugh's son, who was in the bar, was shot in the body and legs: "Ah, he's fairly good," said Hugh. "Still has a bullet in his side - too dangerous to remove, they reckon."

Other people who were injured that night still frequent the bar, as well as relatives of the dead. It remains the centre of the village. "People still congregate here," said Hugh. "It was people's wish to keep the place open. They reckoned the village would be dead without it."

Do they talk about what happened? "Occasionally it will come up in conversation, but mostly people keep their own thoughts to themselves. It's in their heart - they all suffer in their own heart, they keep it private."

This is the most beautiful of villages, and the most modest. It is associated with a massacre but it also has a huge achievement to its name, for against all odds it has kept bitterness at bay.

"Relations with our Protestant neighbours were always good," according to a local woman. "I do firmly believe that after the shootings that was further strengthened - Protestants showed very strong support and solidarity. A greater bond built up."

All agree on this point: the Catholic village and nearby Protestant areas got on well both before the shooting and afterwards. Hugh O'Toole points to tickets behind his bar for an interdenominational carol service, observing: "It's still a very good mixed clientele come into the bar, all walks of life."

The lack of bitterness is reflected in the memorial of polished granite in the village graveyard, facing towards the mountains of Mourne. Listing the names of the six dead, its inscription reads that they "died tragically". It conveys discreet dignity. The local councillor Patsy Toman commented: "We could have said they were murdered, but instead we said it was in loving memory. We think it's beautiful in its simplicity, it's perfect. These were solid people and it's a solid memorial."

There is regret among some in the village that no one was ever charged with the killings. "That would help things," said Hugh O'Toole. "Somebody must be running about with a very guilty conscience. You'd like to see somebody held accountable."

Mr Toman agreed. "It disappoints me to this day that nobody was ever brought to book. At the graves on Christmas morning I see the orphans and the widows standing around them. I feel we need a closing but nobody wants to be in the glare of television, we're not looking for worldwide publicity."

There is a desire for justice in Loughinisland, but there is no public clamour from its people for high-profile actions. There are still many tears, people admit, but they flow behind closed doors, a deeply personal grief.

The question arises: how can a village which suffered so much rise above rancour? How can it absorb all that hatred and venom and refrain from responding with hatred of its own? Where do such people find such strength?

Nine children lost their fathers in O'Toole's that night. Patsy Toman looked out over the hedgerows, bursting now with lush June profusion, as he recalled: "I went into the bar. It was horrific, and what could we do? It was just complete slaughter."

A fleet of ambulances to ferry the injured to hospital was followed by a fleet of hearses to carry away the dead. Some who rushed to the scene were hugely relieved to find that their relatives had not been in the pub, but others arrived to discover that relatives had been shot.

Patsy Toman had to tell many of them the dreaded news: "There was awful anguish, people going hysterical. I can still hear the screams of those people when they were told their nearest and dearest was dead."

Marie Byrne lost her husband, Eamon, who earlier that night had taken her out for a meal to celebrate the birth of their youngest son six weeks earlier. Eamon, described as a real family man who lived for his wife and boys, was shot six times in the back.

Mrs Byrne's brother Patrick O'Hare was also killed, his father cradling his head as he lay on the floor of the pub. The wife of another victim, Adrian Rogan, kept asking a priest: "What am I to say to the children?"

The same priest comforted Ann Jenkinson, a psychiatric nurse whose husband, Malcolm, was killed. After saying a decade of the Rosary, Ann said to him: "Father, would you please say a prayer for those who killed him?"

As locals tell it, the sheer shock lasted for a year or two, but people tried their best to get on with their lives. "There was a lot of prayer," one man said. "We're very strong that way, very strong. We didn't deserve this, but we took it on the chin."

Today the Loughinisland orphans and widows are treated with much compassion, a local man explaining: "The families are looked at with great sympathy in the parish, they're special people in the parish. It's a fondness."

Barney Green is remembered as a very gentle character, a great conversationalist who, according to a neighbour, "could talk about any subject, loved telling old stories and could have sung a bit of an old song now and then."

This oldest victim of the Troubles was, a policeman said, "gunned down in a way that would have been cruel for a dog."

Barney's nephew Dan McCreanor died with him in the bar. Patsy Toman draws a veil about what exactly he witnessed in the pub that night, but he described one poignant image: "The way they were lying Barney seemed to have his arm around Dan. You'd almost think he was saying, 'Look, it'll be all right.' "

Hugh O'Toole had just arrived in Romania when the news of the massacre reached him, and immediately returned home. He said: "It really hit me at Stansted airport and on the newsstands was a photograph of Barney. That's when it really sank in."

When Hugh O'Toole arrived home he said: "This has destroyed me." But it didn't, for he reopened the bar. He has since been back to Romania four times. "It gives you a bit of a lift if you're doing something good for somebody else."

A group of Loughinisland men are off to Romania again in a few weeks' time. Much of the work they do out there involves fixing up orphanages: it is not only the orphans of Loughinisland they care for, but those of Romania as well.

Today, Hugh's wish is for peace and stability and for political progress to strengthen Northern Ireland's imperfect peace. The politicians, he said, need to push a lot harder, "make things move a lot better than they are doing, start getting something done."

A great sadness lies over his village, and will continue to do so for at least a generation.

Yet after all the bloodshed and the bereavement, Hugh O'Toole still has the faith in the future to say, without a trace of irony and with characteristic Loughinisland lack of bitterness, "It's a great wee country."

O'TOOLE'S BAR AND ITS VICTIMS

Adrian Rogan

The 34-year-old scrap metal contractor was married with two children. He had called at the bar to collect a football ticket.

Eamon Byrne

A married man, aged 34, with four children, he had gone to the bar with his brother-in-law, Patrick O'Hare, to watch a football match.

Patrick O'Hare

The 35-year-old single man was shot several times in the thigh and abdomen. His father survived the attack.

Malcolm Jenkinson

The 53-year-old building contractor was married with three children.

He died from bullet wounds to the abdomen.

Daniel McCreanor

A single farmer aged 59, he was shot as he sat drinking with his uncle, Barney Green, and died from a bullet wound to the chest.

Barney Green

The oldest victim of the Troubles, aged 87. He had been involved in farming and the building trade.

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