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Murdered UDR man's wife new head of War Widows society

By Claire O'Boyle

A Co Down woman has become the first person from Northern Ireland to head up the War Widows' Association.

Mary Moreland was just 31 when her husband John, a part-time reservist for the UDR, was murdered by the IRA in 1988. She was left alone with two young children - nine days before Christmas.

"The timing was pretty terrible," recalled Mary.

"I was working in the kitchen in my son's primary school the day it happened. At around the same time the police came to tell me my husband was dead, Santa Claus arrived in to see all the children. I insisted my son got to see Santa before I told him his daddy had been killed."

Mary credits the people around her at the time, including her then 10-year-old son and daughter, who was 12, for getting her through the first harrowing days and weeks after John's murder.

That is why, almost 30 years on, she is determined to help other widows left behind by conflict move on with their lives.

"It was terrible, but looking back I feel like I was almost cosseted from it all," she said. "John had a military funeral which was very dignified and much of that was taken care of for me so I could focus my attention on the children.

"My family was wonderful too and while you don't realise at the time, having very strong support around you makes a huge difference."

As well as his UDR duties, Mary's husband also owned his own coal merchants. On the day he died, December 16, 1988, John (37) had gone from the family home in the village of Clough, Co Down, to Downpatrick to deliver coal.

"He had just finished his last delivery when he was attacked," recalled Mary, who also served as a Greenfinch with the UDR for a time during the 1980s.

"It was two IRA men, one with an automatic rifle and the other with a handgun. They had taken over a house in Downpatrick the night before and when they saw him getting into his van, they ambushed him and he was killed instantly. It was at 10.25am."

No-one was convicted directly of John's murder, although convictions relating to his death were secured.

Mary recalls being told of her husband's death by two police officers. "They arrived at the school very quickly after it happened," she said.

"But I knew what had happened before they even told me - I knew by their faces.

"The atmosphere at the time meant we knew John was at risk, as I had been when I was in the UDR. It must have been so hard for them to break news like that - and they had to do it a lot in those days."

The forces rallied round and on Christmas Day, John's UDR colleagues made a huge effort to lift the spirits of his devastated family.

"That first Christmas was very sad," said Mary, who is also a member of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee, and the Victims and Survivors Forum.

"But some of the chaps who served with John came round on Christmas Day with a fantastic present for the children - a computer. One of them even dressed up as Santa.

"It was very kind of them and it was that sort of kindness that helped us so much. John was a lovely, gentle man and the children adored him," she added.

The current chair of the War Widows' Association, Irene Wills, will hand over to Mary this Saturday.

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