When `The Troubles` Came, They Were “In Battalions”

WHEN `The Troubles` came to the Newry area, they were “not as single spies but in battalions,” to paraphrase William Shakespeare. And the zenith of trauma and tragedy was reached, in 1974.

Some people have suggested that, like Brian Feeney and my good friend, David McKittrick, I should produce a book, chronicling the experiences of being a photo-journalist covering the conflict, especially in the frontier town and South Armagh.

But why should readers have to shell-out £4.99 at Easons, when they can get the same information in `Newry Memoirs?` Images still clear in the mind’s eye include the amazing sight of Newry town centre ablaze on the morning of Internment; ambulance crews, picking up pieces of human flesh at the bomb-blasted Customs Clearance Station, where nine were killed; and firemen carrying out two bodies, wrapped in blankets, from a public house in Monaghan Street on Christmas Eve.

And there was the courage of bereaved parents, like Mrs Sadie Reavey, three of whose sons were killed by a loyalist gang; the Rowntrees, who lost twin sons in the conflict; Mrs Heatley, whose schoolboy son was shot dead by a soldier at Derrybeg; families of three young men, shot dead unarmed on Newry’s main street; and the O’Hare’s, whose daughter Majella was shot dead on her way to confession near Whitecross.

There were also the victims at Newry police station (nine dead), Kingsmills (ten) and Narrow-water (18 killed); Liam Prince and Joanne Reilly from Warrenpoint; Patrick Toner and Sean McCreesh, as well as Captain Nairac and R.U.C. Sergeant White, killed or abducted near Forkhill, also Brendan Moley, etc.

Maybe the most poignant event was the shooting dead of Majella O’Hare by a British paratrooper. Monsignors Denis Faul and Raymond Murray produced a booklet, detailing the evidence of eyewitnesses. Among those present were Jimmy Reavey, father of the three brothers, shot dead six months earlier, and Nurse Anne Campell, who was to have married one of the slain brothers on that day. They were tending her fiancée’s grave.

After Majella had been seriously wounded in the abdomen, Nurse Campbell volunteered medical attention, but this was refused. The girl’s father had been about 100 yards away, and rushed to his daughter’s assistance. Despite stating who he was, he was told by an officer to “F- off”.

When the helicopter arrived about 10 minutes later, Majella was placed on board, between her father and Nurse Campbell. She ran a hand up her father’s chest to his face and murmured: “Oh, daddy,“ then went unconscious. A doctor was waiting when the craft touched down at Daisyhill Hospital, and Nurse Campbell carried Majella into the Casualty Department. A stethoscope was applied, but the doctor stated: “She’s gone.” As Nurse Campbell was leaving, Mrs O’Hare came into the hospital and asked her: “Tell me please, honest, is she dead?” The nurse could not tell her. Father Hughes then arrived, and he imparted the terrible tidings.

A `nightmare scenario` faced me when arrested by the British Army at Ballyholland, after two unarmed Official I.R.A men had been shot dead by under-cover soldiers. Charged with ignoring instructions from an officer, I was taken in a military vehicle to Bessbrook army base, and seemed set for the high jump!

One of the victims was Martin McAlinden, a journalist with the `Frontier Sentinel,’ whose father, Eddie, operated a Home Bakery in Monaghan Street. The other was Oliver Rowntree, a civil servant, whose twin-brother, Colman, an officer in the Provisional I.R.A., was killed in the bomb-explosion at the Customs Clearance Station.

On hearing about the shooting, I had hastened to the scene, but was stopped by a soldier. On producing a Press card, I was told to wait for a few minutes. In the meantime, a hearse came along and the undertaker, Brendan Heaney, indicated with a thumb over his shoulder the two coffins inside.

Since there seemed no point in remaining, I prepared to leave. But the soldier returned, and said I could take some photographs. Puzzled, I followed him to where some sticks of gelignite had been laid out on the grass-verge. On enquiring whether any guns had been recovered, he responded in the negative, looking slightly embarrassed.

When I requested permission to take some pictures at the scene of the shooting, he brought me up a slope, pointing down towards a ditch. An officer and sergeant were standing nearby. I asked to be shown the exact spot, so the officer volunteered, but insisted that no photographs should be taken of him.

However, I took a chance and held the Rolleflex camera against my chest, pointing it in the direction of the officer. As I took a picture, I made a remark to the sergeant standing beside me, to disguise the click of the shutter-release. However, the N.C.O. heard the sound and shouted: “Sir, he has taken your photograph.”

The camera was taken from me; I was marched down to the road, and placed in the front seat of an armoured personnel carrier. My glasses taken from me, and I was told to sit on my hands. The vehicle was driven to Bessbrook army base by a circuitous route, probably in case of attack, following the fatal shooting.

During the journey, I frantically tried to think of some excuse to explain having disregarded the officer’s order. Should I say that my finger had slipped on the camera, or tell the truth, - that a photograph of a ditch would have been of no interest to any photographic agency.

On arrival at the base, I was handed over to a crew-cut sergeant, who ordered me to stand, spread-eagled against a wall, while he did a body-search. Reports were coming out of Long Kesh about prisoners being forced to stand for hours against a wall, supported only by their fingertips, and subjected to a loud noise. Maybe some serious charge would be preferred against me, and I would be given a long jail sentence.

The sergeant asked where I lived, and when I replied that my home was in the Derrybeg estate, he responded, “A very residential area.” When he asked about my religion, and I told him I was “an R.C,” he commented: “Oh, you are one of those.” I began to panic.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008