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Blood in the rain

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Kingsmills Massacre, when a wave of murders in Co Armagh culminated with a hilling attack that left ten men dead. Chris Thornton reports

Published 05/01/2006

There were as many funerals as there were hours of daylight. They buried nine in Bessbrook three days after the gunfire stopped, while a couple of thousand people stood covered by sleety rain, a heavy mist and bewildering grief. One funeral was already over, and once all ten men were in the ground, they were left with just the terrible wait for whatever happened next.

There were as many funerals as there were hours of daylight. They buried nine in Bessbrook three days after the gunfire stopped, while a couple of thousand people stood covered by sleety rain, a heavy mist and bewildering grief. One funeral was already over, and once all ten men were in the ground, they were left with just the terrible wait for whatever happened next.

It had rained, too, the night of what could only be called a massacre. The talk that day, January 5, 1976, at John Compton's cloth factory, Glenanne, had been of the murders the night before, the sudden awful deaths that visited the homes of the Reavey and O'Dowd families in Whitecross and Gilford. "It horrified us all," said one of the workers, a Protestant.

Then it was home time, and in the dark minibus ride, after the last women had been dropped off near their homes, the remaining 12 men talked of other things like the comparative benefits of Leeds United and Manchester United, both battling Liverpool at the top of the English First Division.

Just after the van cleared the rise of a hill, there was a man standing in the road and flashing a torch. They stopped and there was the sudden, ominous movement of 11 other men, all armed emerging from the hedges around them. The first thought was that it was the Army, but the gunmen were masked.

A man "with a pronounced English accent" did all the talking. He asked their religions. There was only one Catholic left on the bus, Richard Hughes. According to one account, some of his Protestant workmates, assuming that they had been stopped by a loyalist gang and he was their target, squeezed his hand to indicate he shouldn't identify himself. But he was identified and ordered away from his Protestant workmates. He was able to run off.

The lead gunman spoke one other word - "Right" - and the shooting began.

Alan Black was a typical victim in that he was shot 18 times in the vicious burst of gunfire that lasted perhaps a minute. He was the only one to survive.

After the initial screams, he recalled years later, "There was silence. I was semi-conscious and passed out several times with the deadly pain and cold. I must have been lying at the roadside waiting on the ambulance for up to 30 minutes. It was like an eternity.

"When help arrived I could not get the words out quick enough. I was afraid I'd die and nobody would ever know what happened. I was hysterical and wanted to tell everyone - the ambulance men, nurses, doctors, police."

William McCaughey, an RUC officer later jailed for a sectarian murder, was in the first police Land Rover to arrive at the scene. "When we arrived it was utter carnage," he said. "Men were lying two or three together. Blood was flowing, mixed with water from the rain.

"There was a thick thorn hedge with two men stuck in it. They were that desperate to escape they'd tried to run through the hedge. They had to be pulled from it.

"When I got home, I noticed the bottom of my trousers, big heavy police trousers, were soaked. I squeezed them out on the kitchen floor and I think there was as much blood as water. I had a lot of bad experiences but that was the worst, certainly in terms of human suffering."

The heart was cut out of Bessbrook, a small, Quaker model village that the Troubles had turned into an Army base. Nine of the men lived in Bessbrook. They had 14 children between them.

They were Joseph Lemmon, whose wife was standing over their tea as he died; Reginald Chapman, a Sunday school teacher who played football for Newry Town; his younger brother Walter Chapman; Kenneth Worton, whose youngest daughter had not even started school; James McWhirter, who belonged to the local Orange lodge; Robert Chambers, still a teenager and living with his parents; James McConville, who was planning to train as a missionary; John Bryans, a widower who left two children orphaned; and Robert Freeburn, who was also a father of two. The van driver, Robert Walker, came from near Glenanne.

Alan Black said later that in the months after the attack, he stopped leaving his house "because I kept expecting to bump into my mates who were dead". Bessbrook was that kind of place - a walk out for the papers would normally put you in the path of friend. Their absence left holes.

The next day, the murders were claimed by a caller on behalf of the South Armagh Republican Action Force, the same group that had claimed another sectarian attack in Tullyvallen Orange Hall.

He said that the murders had been committed in retaliation for the Reavey and O'Dowd killings and there would be "no further action on our part" if loyalists stopped their attacks. "We are a complete and separate organisation and have no connection with the Provos," the caller added.

Few, if any, believed him. The IRA was officially on ceasefire, but the truce had become worthless and would be ditched two months later: the Provos had increasingly become involved in ceasefire violence, especially in a sectarian war with loyalists.

The suspicion was that the IRA was the group with the means of mounting such a large scale attack. Six years later the recovery of an Armalite used in the massacre seemed to confirm it.

The Government announced that the SAS would be deployed in Northern Ireland for the first time. The UVF also had plans.

According to William McCaughey - and reinforced by other loyalists of the time - retaliation on "particularly gruesome" targets was planned. McCaughey says the convent in Newry was to have been attacked. A Catholic school was also mentioned. Guns and cars were organised, but the attack was called off at a late stage.

"After Kingsmills there was never the same intensity on either side," McCaughey says. "It was quite obviously the worst period of the Troubles in that, regardless of the killing rate, fear was at its height.

"I think Kingsmills forced people to ask themselves where they were going, especially the Protestant support base, the civilian support base - the people who were not members of the UVF but would let you use a building or a field.

"Those people, many of them withdrew. It wasn't because of anything the UVF did. It was fear of retaliation as such."

Changes came that year at the highest levels: the leaders of the RUC and the NIO were replaced, police primacy followed and 'Ulsterisation' saw the level of violence fall. But not before Kingsmills set the mark for the second worst year for terrorist-related deaths in the Troubles.

Those funerals in Bessbrook were not the last in Northern Ireland because of the Troubles - another 290 were to follow before the calendar turned again.

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