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How scars of Tullyvallen massacre have never healed

During his visit this week, Prince Charles met with relatives of Orangemen murdered during the Troubles. Now a new book retells one of the worst atrocities when five members were gunned down in south Armagh

By Ivan Little

Published 26/05/2016

Hand of friendship: The Prince of Wales meets members of the Orange Order at the Museum of Orange Heritage at Sloan's House during his visit to Loughgall this week
Hand of friendship: The Prince of Wales meets members of the Orange Order at the Museum of Orange Heritage at Sloan's House during his visit to Loughgall this week
Prince Charles being greeted by well-wishers and during a visit to the Orange Order heritage museum in Loughgall
Prince Charles with Grand Master of the Orange Order Edward Stevenson
Tullyvallen Orange Hall in 1975 where the attack took place
Sad loss: the coffins of James McKee, a retired farmer and his son Ronnie are carried from the family farm at Castleblaney Road,Newtownhamilton
The cover of Tullyvallen; Seven Men, Seven Months
James McKee
Ronnie McKee
John Johnston, who held the role of chaplain at the lodge
William Herron, who died in hospital two days after the attack
Lodge secretary Nevin McConnell

Survivors of one of Northern Ireland's most horrific sectarian massacres have broken a 41-year silence to give chilling accounts in a new book of how five men were killed as republicans unleashed a merciless gun attack on an Orange hall in south Armagh.

Relatives of the victims - and two other members of the same Orange lodge who were murdered by the IRA around the same time - have also told how the killings have left a legacy of fear for Protestants who are still living in the border area.

Prince Charles, who was in the province on Tuesday, met with some of the survivors and relatives of those who were murdered - many of whom still feel justice has yet to be served on those who carried out the atrocity. The Prince of Wales met with officials from the Orange Order as well as having a private meeting with victims' groups, among others during his visit.

The stories of the terror at Tullyvallen four decades ago are contained in the new book Tullyvallen; Seven Men, Seven Months (the book also pays respects to two other lodge members who were killed in separate incidents) and the Belfast Telegraph has been given exclusive access to the publication which was launched at a poignant ceremony in the very same Orange hall where the terrorists struck on September 1, 1975.

Inside the tiny building near Newtownhamilton, a table still bears the scars - a number of bullet holes - from the attack which was mounted as 17 Orangemen from Tullyvallen Orange Lodge LOL 630 held their usual monthly meeting.

Just over a fortnight earlier, a member of the same lodge, a former RUC reservist William Meaklim (28) was kidnapped and murdered by the Provisionals.

Father and son James and Ronnie McKee, aged 73 and 40 respectively, died instantly in the gun attack at the Orange hall as did John Johnston (80).

Lodge secretary Nevin McConnell (48) died as a doctor tended to his wounds at Tullyvallen.

And 68-year-old William Herron died in hospital two days afterwards as a result of the injuries he sustained at the Orange hall.

It's thought that one of the gunmen may also have been wounded. An off duty member of the security forces who was at the meeting fired his personal protection weapon and it is believed he hit one of the terrorists.

Rumours that the gunman later died and was secretly buried in south Armagh were never substantiated.

But the death toll that night on the Altnamackin Road could have been even higher. As the dead and injured were being carried from the hall by ambulance crews, a suspicious package was spotted nearby.

An Army bomb disposal team was called and they later confirmed that it was a bomb - a metal container with two pounds of explosives inside.

Just five months later, in February 1976, a seventh Tullyvallen Orangeman, Joe McCullough, (56), a part time UDR soldier was murdered by the IRA on his farm.

He had taken over the chaplain's role in the Orange lodge from a Tullyvallen victim, John Johnston.

The last months of 1975 and the first months of the following year saw a shocking upsurge in violence in south Armagh with the killings of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmill and a series of murders carried out by loyalist paramilitary groups, including the UVF.

The new book about the Tullyvallen massacre has been published by a family support group from the area who wanted it to be a permanent memorial for the dead men and to record the impact of the attacks on the bereaved families, the survivors and the injured victims.

At the time of the killings, few relatives spoke to the media and the families have said little since.

The book's compilers said: "In the immediate aftermath and during the ensuing years families were fearful of speaking out due to the circumstances of being a minority community living in the border region and the violence, threats and intimidation prevalent in the area.

"These fears continue to the present day," they added, comparing the book to a postponed wake and an "early step in an ongoing healing process".

The killings were claimed by an organisation calling themselves the South Armagh Republican Action Force, a name used again just a few months later by the killers at Kingsmill.

After both atrocities the IRA denied that the name was a cover for them and denied any involvement in the shootings. But few people believed them. And at the trial of the only man ever convicted in connection with the murders, Mr Justice McDermott clearly had no doubt the Provisionals were to blame.

He said: "The crimes displayed a degree of barbarity rarely equalled during these past years. They were the actions of members of the south Armagh Provisional IRA.

"I have heard soft spoken men from Co Armagh whose friends have been killed or wounded give their evidence quietly with sadness in their eyes and with real dignity. They will not submit to violence or the threat of violence."

One of the men who was injured at the Orange hall said in the book that a number of people had been worried about going to the Tullyvallen lodge meeting in the wake of the escalating violence in the area which had seen two men, Joe Reid and Bertie Frazer, murdered in the previous couple of nights.

There was talk of postponing all Orange gatherings but the September meeting went ahead and within minutes of the opening prayers and Bible readings, the lodge members' worst fears were realised.

John Henry, who was at the meeting with his father, said he heard a huge bang at the kitchen door followed by another one.

Other survivors said two masked men burst into the hall opening fire with automatic weapons.

There were reports that other gunmen who were outside the hall fired into the building as well.

James McKee, who was the Tullyvallen Worshipful Master and John Johnston, the chaplain were killed where they sat.

James McKee and Nevin McConnell had just signed the minutes of the lodge's last meeting and a picture of that record is included in the new book.

One of the Orangemen said: "I remember Nevin (McConnell) shouting for us all to run to the toilets. He got approximately half way down the hall when he was hit several times in the upper body and fell to the floor.

"As I was getting down to the floor, Ronnie McKee, who was sitting a couple of places to my left was on his feet with a chair raised above his head as if he was about to throw it at the gunmen.

"I lay on the floor face down with my arms around my head. During the shooting I was hit on the left forearm by a bullet, the impact of the strike broke my arm."

The survivor said that the shooting stopped after what seemed like an age - but was probably less than 30 seconds.

John Henry, who was 22 at the time, said he fled into the toilets and lay on the floor after the gunfire started.

"It seemed to go on and on, so loud, so rapid, so frightening. Then there was a deadly silence and I heard the sound of footsteps," he said.

"My initial thought was that the footsteps were a gunman coming to shoot us individually and all I could think about was how to defend myself; in truth there was nowhere to hide.

"Then I heard a voice, it was the voice of my father; we were both alive but fathers and sons lay dead and wounded in the hall.

"It was a terrible scene, men groaning with pain and the smell and haze from the gunfire, with blood spilt on the floor alongside empty bullet shells.

"As I walked up the hall towards the wounded, I saw that sadly John Johnston had been fatally shot as well as James and Ronnie McKee.

"I did what I could to aid the wounded and it seemed ages before medical help arrived."

Mr Henry's father narrowly escaped serious injury. His side had been grazed by two bullets but because he suffered from angina he spent the next few days in hospital.

Mr Henry's family, who lived a mile from Cullyhanna, moved from their home just three days after the Tullyvallen slaughter.

He said he was grateful that he and his father had survived but he added: "There was no counselling or support of any kind to help us deal with the mental scars of being involved in such an incident."

He said that even though over 40 years had passed, he still thought about "that awful night" everyday, adding: "As long as I live I will never forget those terrible sights and sounds; alongside the fear and panic they will always remain in my thoughts."

Mr Henry said, however, that he and the other survivors have been more fortunate than other families who lost loved ones and have been subjected to a lifetime of grief and loss.

A clergyman, who was at last week's launch for the book, the Rev John Hawthorne said in the publication that in the aftermath of the shootings, he visited the families of the dead men and saw the survivors in Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry.

"Each was in a state of shock, deeply saddened at what had happened to their friends but grateful to God that they had been spared," said Mr Hawthorne, who added that a spirit of fear and foreboding hung over the Protestant community in south Armagh after the killings.

"The general feeling was that the IRA was bent on driving Protestant people from their homes and take over their farms.

"Many of the farms were isolated and the number of unapproved roads from the Republic in the area made it easy for terrorists to move about. Yes, there was an Army presence but soldiers and police couldn't be everywhere."

The book, which was developed in association with community development workers Rodney Green and Suzi Swain, also includes contributions from the descendants of the seven men who were killed in those seven months in 1975-76.

Marion Hawthorne, a niece of UDR soldier Joe McCullough, revealed that the first of the seven murder victims, William Meaklim, had at one point been a lodger with her uncle.

She said that the day after the shootings at the Orange hall, Joe McCullough went to the home of his murdered neighbours James and Ronnie McKee to help with the farm chores.

Mr McCullough's body wasn't found until the morning after his murder and his niece told how his dog was lying by his side and his open Bible was on the table where he had been sitting "when the harbingers of death descended on him".

Alasdair Cooke, who's a grandchild of James McKee and a nephew of Ronnie McKee, said they were thoroughly decent Christian men who had been cut down by "faceless cowardly thugs who had nothing but brutal mass murder on their minds".

He said that as a youngster running through the fields and roads near his home he had seen nothing wrong. But he added: "These people (the terrorists) were skulking in our midst, watching us and making preparations to murder those who didn't support their agenda."

And he spoke of how the bombings and murders had left an indelible mark on his young mind.

Another relative said that he doubted if anyone else would be brought to justice for Tullyvallen but added that he didn't hate Catholics because of the massacre.

"The lesson should be that as a community we should do our best to ensure that such events never happen again. Building good relations with our neighbours and the community is the only way forward if there is ever to be lasting peace."

A number of contributors said that they still had unanswered questions about the murders even after they were reviewed by the Historical Enquiries Team but politics don't figure in the book.

And indeed no politicians were invited to the publication's launch.

Further information regarding copies of the book Tullyvallen; Seven Men, Seven Months can be obtained by emailing: info@tullyvallenfamilysupport.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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