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The unending anguish of the Troubles' forgotten victims

By Donna Deeney

Published 08/03/2016

Sharon Austin (left) and Marie Newton (centre front) with the project coordinator Carol Cunningham and editor Julieann Campbell (right)
Sharon Austin (left) and Marie Newton (centre front) with the project coordinator Carol Cunningham and editor Julieann Campbell (right)
John Toland (right)

A woman whose husband was "riddled" with bullets behind his own bar and another whose brother was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the IRA have told their heart-rending stories of how the Troubles impacted on them and their families.

Marie Newton and Sharon Austin grew up on opposite sides of the political and religious divide but their grief, pain and loss are identical.

Marie Newton was 35 when her first husband and father to their seven young children, John Toland, was gunned down in his own pub in Eglinton village in Co Londonderry in November 1976.

The UDA/UFF later claimed responsibility for his murder and tried to claim he was an informant for the IRA.

Forty years on, Marie recalls the night she was at home with the children when the phone rang with the dreadful news.

She said: "At 6pm, I got the phone call to say John was shot dead. It was a priest who rang me. 'Are you Mrs Toland?' he asked, 'John's been shot - he's dead.' I thought someone was having me on.

"Our Danny was upstairs doing his homework at the time, and he flew past me in the hall in his bare feet and ran out the door to the cathedral, beating on the parochial house door until Bishop Daly came out. Danny told him his father had been shot, 'My mother needs a priest,' so Bishop Daly ran over.

"When I talk about it now, I go right back to that very night and live every minute over again. Fr Neil Carlin came too, and he went away to phone to find out if it was true. He confirmed that John was dead.

"They'd shot the face off him. They had walked up to the bar counter and asked him, 'Are you John Toland?' 'I sure am,' my John said, and they just riddled him with bullets.

"They shot him in the neck and blew the roof out of his mouth, they shot him in the stomach, which got his kidneys, the lot, and then a third time in his chest, too. He was destroyed, shot to bits. He was only 36."

Two years before John Toland was murdered, Sharon Austin was just 11 when her big brother Winston Cross (18) and his friend Joseph Slater were snatched by an IRA gang, tortured for three days and left lying dead by the side of the road.

She said: "Winston worked as a painter in Ebrington Barracks and was leaving his work one Friday in 1974 to join the Army the following week.

"He had papers to sign up on Tuesday, November 11, 1974 - Poppy Day - which is why that day is very significant to us. That's his day.

"At first, my mother didn't worry, but she got anxious when he still didn't appear the next day. It was out of character for him to stay out all night. When my mother went to the police, they laughed at her and sent her home. They said Winston was probably away with some woman.

"My mother heard the news when she went into the mobile shop that drove around the Glen. She was in for cigarettes when a neighbour of ours told the shopkeeper that two bodies had been found up on Sheriff's Mountain. My mother knew it was Winston and (Joseph). Nobody told her - she just knew. That's how she found out …

"They had been taken to Donegal and tortured for three days before being hooded and shot on Sheriff's Mountain. There they left them - lying at the side of the road - with black bin bags over their heads.

"At first, the IRA said that he was an informer for the military because he worked in Ebrington Barracks.

"They then changed their story and claimed it was a case of mistaken identity, and they apologised for taking him and shooting him. That part is hard to take."

The bereaved pair are just two of 28 women telling their stories in a book launched to commemorate International Women's Day. Beyond the Silence is the first publication to focus exclusively on the experiences of women who have suffered through the conflict but have been forgotten in the peace process.

The emotionally charged collection evolved from a unique oral history programme entitled Unheard Voices.

Edited by award-winning writer Julieann Campbell, the collection of stories pulls no punches and spares the reader nothing as chapter after chapter paints in graphic detail the struggles felt by the women at the time and which continue to affect them deeply.

Project coordinator Carol Cunningham said: "This project focuses solely on the unheard voices of women - those who felt ready to share their intensely personal stories with the wider world - the resulting anthology Beyond the Silence is one of honest, raw emotion.

"It has been both a very humbling and rewarding two years. As strangers in many instances, we were welcomed into homes and invited to listen as women spoke candidly of their personal experiences. Indeed, some of the following stories have been buried so deeply, they have yet to be shared with other family members. I feel honoured that the women entrusted us with their stories and we hope we have done them justice."

Beyond the Silence, which will be launched tonight at 7pm in the Rath Mor Centre, Creggan, is published by Guildhall Press in Derry. The Unheard Voices programme is supported by Creggan Enterprises and the International Fund for Ireland

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