Town's bloody past allows only a glimmer of hope: Mary Braid reports on a border community where painful memories loom large

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CLAIRE LECKY, aged eight weeks, was baptised yesterday in the First Castlederg Presbyterian Church, a few miles from the Irish border.

On a day when thousands of churchgoers said prayers for peace across Northern Ireland, the Rev Roy Neill told Michelle and Ivan Lecky the christening of their second child was 'a symbol of a new beginning for the country'.

But there were no elaborate or extended prayers of thanks for the new peace.

The baptism and the new church organ received as much attention as the loyalist ceasefire. A measured Rev Neill told his congregation of 200, the descendants of 17th-century Scottish settlers, that the ceasefire offered a 'glimmer of hope'. But he said it would be some weeks before a service would be dedicated to prayers for peace. Such reticence is understandable.

In the past 25 years sectarian and terrorist murders have sent more than 20 funeral corteges along Castlederg's main street. Men have been butchered simply because they were Catholic or Protestant, but most victims were killed by the IRA because they were members of the security forces. Rev Neill has buried nine congregation members murdered by the IRA, which has seen the town that juts into the republic as an easy target.

Northern Ireland is a churchgoing country and Castlederg has nine churches covering eight denominations.

Like Fr Jim MacGonagle, the local Roman Catholic priest, the Rev Neill says there has been no shortage of prayer in the past. Sometimes it must have seemed as if God was not listening.

Harry Monteith watched Claire's baptism with his wife and three sons. Six years ago his father, William, 59, an RUC reservist, bled to death in the town centre after being shot in the street at point-blank range by a terrorist. He was the second member of the Monteith family to die at the hands of the IRA.

The murderer was never caught. Mr Monteith's three sons were so traumatised by the loss of their grandfather that they received counselling. Mr Monteith still swallows hard when he retells the story. 'He left five children and nine grandchildren and the events are still fresh in my mind,' he said.

'This ceasefire is what we have hoped and prayed for. I just hope it is permanent but with all the guns and ammunition out there it dampens your optimism. Castlederg has not relaxed just because of recent developments.'

Rev Neill remembers the numbness that flooded the Monteith's home. 'Handling these deaths is the most devastating experience you can undertake as a minister. There is nothing you can do for the families except be there for them.'

Rev Neill, Fr MacGonagle and the local Methodist and Church of Ireland ministers meet regularly in a cafe in Castlederg. Their 'symbolic' chats in full view of a divided town began after the particularly sickening murder of a local Protestant who was suffering from leukaemia. 'When Andrew Bogle was blown up everyone asked why Andrew, a man struggling so hard to live.'

Both churchmen say forgiveness will take a monumental effort from both sides in Castlederg if a real and lasting peace is to become possible.

Yesterday, Michelle Lecky, 22, born and raised in Castlederg, said she was optimistic. 'My husband and I both just hope the peace lasts. We do not want Claire or our other child to see what we have seen.'