Friday 8th of May is a date etched in the minds of all republicans, a dreadful night almost three decades ago when a gun and bomb battle in Loughgall, a sleepy village near the borders of Tyrone, where the red hand county seeps into North Armagh, claimed the lives of eight of the IRA’s finest, all members of the East Tyrone Brigade, all ruthlessly killed in a set-to ambush involving undercover British soldiers from the infamous SAS regiment.
A fortnight ago on my way home from Belfast – on one of those warm summer-type afternoons during the recent spell of good weather – the notion took me to take a drive through the village, something I’d often meant to do on journeys down the M1 but never quite got round to.
It’s hard to describe my thoughts over those narrow, winding straights and bends, mindful all the while of the horror that unfolded on that spring evening in 1987. A mix of sorrow and anger – as thoughts of Lynagh and McKearney, O’Callaghan, Kelly, Kelly again, Gormley, Arthurs and Donnelly – among the finest this land has produced – raced through my mind. Having heard so much of them growing up it seemed almost surreal to make my way along roads they had travelled as they went unknownst to their doom.
Their fate was to die in a hail of bullets – by pre-planned execution – at the hands of those from a foreign land, under Thatcher’s orders, with their blacked-out faces and automatic weapons, who had no earn in Loughghall, who had no right to their terrorist war, who had no business in this country to be killing anyone.
Unit Commander Paddy Kelly led a ferocious assault on the RUC barracks located in the village, part of an ongoing strategic offensive to drive out all occupying British forces and render the area surrounding East Tyrone and North Armagh inoperable and ungovernable for the British Crown.
Just after 7 o’clock on a clear Friday evening, a commandeered mechanical digger, ferrying a 400lb bomb in its front bucket, slammed into the perimeter fencing of the barracks – breaching the initial lines of defence, with cover provided from the rear at street level by IRA Volunteers entering the village in a Toyota Hiace carrying the remainder of the Active Service Unit.
As a young Declan Arthurs jumped from the digger, lighting a 40-second fuse to detonate the bomb, British Special Forces, from concealed positions in surrounding areas, sprung an ambush and mounted a shoot-to-kill operation. While the bomb exploded, successfully leveling its target, the lives of all eight men were taken in a devastating blow to the Republican Movement.
A passing car carrying brothers Anthony and Oliver Hughes was also caught in the ambush and riddled with gunfire; Anthony dying from his wounds, Oliver fortunate to survive having sustained critical injuries. A ruthless assault from start to finish, at its end eight IRA Volunteers and an uninvolved civilian lay dead. They will never be forgotten.
Driving past that infamous barracks on the outskirts of the village, previously seen only in photographs, I paused briefly, not wanting to draw attention to myself in what remains a staunchly loyalist part of the country. Looking around I took it all in. The ditches where England’s terror gang lay, the short stretch of Tarmac where the lads fell – where the best of Irishmen were cut to pieces – the laneway where an escaping Declan Arthurs, unarmed and a mere 21 years old, was brutally killed by the war criminals who brought death that night to Loughgall.
As the enormity of what happened in that quiet Armagh village hit home, I made good my prayers to God the most High, a quick decade of the Rosary that their sacrifice in the name of freedom would be rewarded in Heaven. They are there in His presence, among the Saints and Patriots of our land, of that I’ve no doubt.
Today marks the anniversary of that wretched night and thus they’re in our thoughts, they’ll always be in our thoughts. Remembered today and every day, God rest them all. One day we will build a monument fitting of these heroes, those brave souls who fought and died at Loughgall. Not of marble, not of stone, but of the dreams of our people – the Irish Republic and nothing less.
Fuair siad bhas ar son saoirse na hEireann; ar dheis De go raibh a n-anam.