Sean Bresnahan remembers those killed at Loughgall on the 33rd anniversary of their deaths.
On Active Service for the Republic, with the East Tyrone Brigade, they were ruthlessly killed in a set-to ambush mounted by undercover British soldiers from the infamous SAS regiment.
A fortnight ago on my way home from Belfast — it was one of those summer-type afternoons during the recent spell of good weather — the notion came upon me to take a drive through the village, something I’d often meant on doing when on journeys down the M1 but which I’d never quite gotten round to previously.
It’s hard to describe my thoughts over those winding straights and bends, mindful all the while of the horror that unfolded that spring evening in 1987. A mix of sorrow and anger as thoughts of Lynagh and McKearney, O’Callaghan and 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 felt somewhat surreal to make my way along roads they had travelled as they sped on that night towards doom.
At the behest of Thatcher, their fate was to die in a hail of bullets at the hands of those who with their blacked-out faces and automatic weapons had no earn in Loughgall, 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 inoperable and ungovernable for the British state in Ireland.
Just after 7 o’clock, 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, from concealed positions in the surrounding area, British Special Forces sprung an ambush and mounted a ‘shoot to kill’ operation. While the bomb exploded, successfully levelling 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 was riddled, too, with gunfire. Anthony was to die from his wounds while Oliver was fortunate to survive, having sustained critical injuries. A ruthless assault from start to finish, at its end eight IRA Volunteers and a passing civilian lay dead. They will never be forgotten and will be counted among the gallant.
Driving past that infamous barracks, seen only before 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 had fallen, where the best of Irishmen had been cut to pieces; the lane-way where an escaping Declan Arthurs, unarmed and a mere 21 years old, was brutally killed by the criminals who brought horror that night to Loughgall.
As the enormity of what had happened there hit home, I made good my prayers, offering a quick Decade of the Rosary that their sacrifice in the name of freedom would be rewarded in Heaven. They are there, among the Saints and Patriots of our land, I have no doubt.
The men cut down that ill-fated evening, 8th of May 1987, stood up to be counted through hard times. They were prepared to defend our people when no-one else would and that is a testament to them. It has been said of their number, as it has been of others, too, that they were ordinary men in extraordinary times — ‘ordinary men who became extraordinary’. This they were for sure.
We are proud here in Ireland to have produced their like and calibre — men who done what they could in the face of evil; who faced down colonialist empire without fear. They did not falter. My hope is that their efforts and sacrifice can be enough to ensure that we never again have to endure Loughgall in this country.
Remembered today, as every day — we are immensely proud of these men, God rest them. One day we will build a monument worthy 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.
(First published on 1916societies.com, May 2015. Reproduced here on their 33rd Anniversary, a number of small revisions have been made.)