Denise Mullen: The day I watched my daddy die
The brutal school gate murder of Jim Donegan in Belfast this week was all the more shocking because it was witnessed by his 13-year-old son, Cris. Here, Leona O'Neill speaks to a woman who saw her father being killed during the Troubles and hears how the pain never goes away.
‘I found my father dead on the doorstep ... all I had on was a nightie — it was soaked in his blood’
Father-of-two Denis Mullen (36) was shot dead by the notorious Glenanne Gang at the front door of his Co Tyrone family home on the night of September 1, 1975.
His daughter, Denise - just four years old at the time - sat by his side in a nightie soaked in her father's blood for two hours before neighbours were allowed to take her and her 13-month-old brother out of the house.
As she sat with her dead father on the freezing doorstep, Denise, now an SDLP councillor with Mid-Ulster District Council, heard his killers fire 13 shots at her mother, Olive, as she fled across fields to a neighbour's house.
The mental images of that terrifying night are seared into Denise's memory -she still gets debilitating flashbacks 43 years later.
"I remember everything about that night," Denise says.
"I was in bed sleeping and I heard a lot of noise and got up. We lived in a bungalow and I walked down the hallway. I noticed clay balls sliding down the window - that was how they got my daddy's attention and got him to come to the door.
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"I was only four and, in my naivety, I remember thinking that my goldfish would be okay, because it was staying with my aunt, Mary.
"A few steps more down the hall, I found my father laying on the doorstep. It is a sight that will never leave me. He was dead. I sat down beside my daddy. All I was wearing was my nightie. It was soon soaked in his blood.
"I remember turning around and seeing mummy climbing out the kitchen window. She ran across the fields to a neighbour's house as the murder gang fired 13 bullets at her. I heard the shots, round after round, ring out as she fled.
"I remember the police and Army arriving. They said there was a bomb in the house, and they put up a cordon and wouldn't let anyone in. I saw the paramedics - six of them lined up against the ambulance - and one of them waved to me from the cordon as I sat with my daddy, but they couldn't get to me.
"I remember our neighbours, Maura and her husband, coming to the cordon, screaming and begging the police to let her take me and my brother out of the house. The police said no.
"No one was able to get near me. I just sat there beside my daddy for two hours. My baby brother was asleep in his cot inside the house.
"I remember Seamus Mallon and my mummy's brother coming to the cordon. The RUC went to lift my daddy's body, but I remember, as clear as day, Seamus Mallon saying, 'There's no way you are lifting this man. He was the greatest man in Ireland. We'll be lifting him'.
"Daddy was a big man, but the two of them lifted him into the ambulance to be taken to the morgue.
"My mother and I had to go to the morgue at South Tyrone Hospital. I remember my mother leaving me outside the room with my aunt, and me banging on the doors screaming that I wanted to see my daddy.
"I don't know why, but I had it in my head that it was a hospital and that I was going to go in there and see him there, alive and well, in a hospital bed - that everything was all right. But that wasn't to be."
Denise says that she knows what it is like to suffer the trauma of losing a parent in such a horrific way and offered the hand of friendship to the Donegan family.
“The murder of Mr Donegan brought back awful memories for me,” she says.
“His son will have to live with his experience for the rest of his life. Because there is no magic out there, no miracle, or no cure that will take that away from you. There is no magic that will take the picture of my daddy out of my head. It will haunt me forever.
“I’d like to reach out to that child. If the Donegan family ever want to talk, I’m here to talk, listen and help — if I can.”
Denise says that what she saw that night will never leave her. And the trauma she experienced impacted on her entire life, leaving her with severe PTSD.
“The images of that night will haunt me forever,” she says. “I still live with the flashbacks and the nightmares. I could be any place and any time and the smell of sitting there for two hours in nothing but a nightdress covered in my precious father’s blood comes over me.
“My life, speech, entire existence, comes to a standstill until that passes. It can last just a second or two, or sometimes a little longer. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone.”
And she says the experience was a thread throughout her childhood and into her adult years.
“I was a very anxious child and very much a loner. I kept it all to myself. I was very withdrawn and shied away from everything. I can remember, in Primary One, we were doing a project in class and pupils were talking about their daddy’s job.
“And I remember saying that my daddy was dead; that he had been shot.
“After the murder, we went to live in England for a while to get away from Northern Ireland. I remember, in Primary Two — I would have been about six — being given pieces of wood to make something arty. The rest of the class made toys, or little things. I made a machine-gun and told the teacher that I wanted to go back to Northern Ireland to shoot the people who shot my daddy.
“I was given a right telling-off by my teacher and my mother was brought before the principal. That is not normal behaviour for a child.
“As I was growing up, when other children were playing in the street, I was going home, looking after my mother and my little brother, standing up on a stool to do dishes, looking about food, lifting my mother’s pension and paying bills. My education was really, really affected.
“I never got any counselling, until February of last year, after I met the man connected to my father’s murder.
“Garfield Beattie served 16 years behind bars for his part in my father’s murder, which he said was part of his initiation into the UVF.
“He told me that he was haunted by the fact that he made one big mistake, he turned around and he saw me there, sitting there with my daddy on the doorstep.”
‘We still have shrapnel in our legs and scars from that day, both mental and physical’
Louise Freeman (40), a teacher and a mother of four from Canada, witnessed her father being blown up in an IRA car bomb in Germany in 1989. Lance Corporal Stephen Smith (31), an officer in the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, was about to take his young family from their home in Hanover to a fairground as a special treat when a device attached to the driver’s side of his car exploded. The blast killed him instantly and gravely injured his wife Tina, his daughter Louise, then 11, her two sisters Leanna (7) and Jade (18 months), and brother Lee (9).
Tina was badly injured. Baby Jade took the full impact of the blast and was severely burned with shrapnel all over her body. Louise and her other siblings had shrapnel embedded in their legs. They still live with the scars, both mental and physical, of that day.
“Myself, Mum, Dad, my younger brother and sisters were all getting ready to go to a fair in Hanover,” she says. “It was rainy and it was just one of those weekday evenings. I don’t think my Mum wanted to go. It was a school night, but Dad said we should go and we were so excited about it.
“We were all lined up on the path and waiting for Dad to open the door so we could climb into the car. My Mum was on one side and we were on the other. Dad opened the door and the bomb went off.
“I remember the noise, the ringing in my ears, and the feeling of warm air. I remember the sheer force of the air from the explosion. It felt like being on a rollercoaster — when you go down, that G-force feeling and the wind pushes back on you.
“When the ringing went I remember the screams, and I remember running. We ran to get into the compound where we lived. I was only 11, I didn’t know what was going on or where I was going; neither did the younger ones. I remember looking around and seeing that the car was on fire. People were running towards us.
“Jade was only 18 months old. She was running around in a circle beside the car and her hair and clothes were on fire. She was burning, she was screaming. We were all hit with shrapnel. I ran to Jade and put her out.
“When I look back on it now it’s like it never happened to me. It’s such a surreal experience. I don’t remember a lot of where my Mum was at the time.
“I couldn’t see Dad. I remember debris being everywhere, but I can’t remember making out what was his body and what wasn’t anymore. My mind doesn’t allow me to go there.
“We were so fortunate that we didn’t die also. Most of the impact was on my Dad’s side.
“I remember we were all sent to different hospitals because it was a terrorist attack. Eventually we all got back together in the same hospital and that is when we were told that our father had died. My Nan and Grandad, my Dad’s parents, actually saw it on the TV before they were told in a phone call.
“We were told to expect the worse when we visited my Mum. Me and Lee were in wheelchairs as we had shrapnel in our legs. And Leanna had a stitch just below were her heart was, where shrapnel had hit her. And Jade was peppered with shrapnel and bandaged from head to toe with the burns. We all still have shrapnel in our legs and scars from that day, both mental and physical.”
We lost our mum that day as well as our dad.
Louise says that she, as the eldest, is the only one of her siblings who remembers her father.
“I don’t remember the last time I spoke to Dad, or the last words he said to me,” she says. “We were just all super-excited about going to the fair and bouncing around like kids do on the way to the car. The next thing our lives completely changed.
“I have memories of him. He was a fun-loving guy, a real jokester. He loved his job and he loved his family. He and Mum met and married as teenagers and had been together ever since.
“I remember my Dad saying things like ‘I love you’ and telling me stories, and sitting on his lap. My brother and sisters don’t remember that at all. I don’t know which is worse, having the burden of those memories or not having them at all.”
Louise says that the impact of the murder didn’t end on the day. She says it ripped her family apart and they all live with the ramifications of that every day.
“That was just the start of the downfall of our family,” she says. “As if that wasn’t bad enough, you could say that the next 10 years of our lives were a consequence of that day. My Mum wasn’t able to parent us. She had lost her husband, the love of her life. We lost my Mum that day as well as our Dad. She just couldn’t cope. She had numerous breakdowns. She had watched her husband die. It was very difficult for her. She lived in fear, we lived in fear. After Dad’s murder we got death threats. They had set out to murder six of us and five of us lived. We lived in Army barracks and hospitals. We lost our home and our families. We had to move countries. We had to move schools. Everything that you try and provide to a child for stability, we never had any of that. One minute we were in Germany just living our lives, the next we were in a new country we didn’t even know, with no support.
“It was extremely difficult. It still is. At the age of 16 my brother came to live with me, then my sister did too. At 16 I was working full-time and looking after two children because my Mum couldn’t. It has been a struggle. We have all made it, because we are all here and we all have our families. But it wasn’t without tremendous consequences.
“We carry this and have carried it for the last 30 years. They had tried to murder us. We have only just started talking about it. We have lived with the fear that they are going to come back. They did it, they weren’t successful and they are going to try again. It is always in the back of your mind.
“I don’t think I could stand in the same room as the people who did that to my Dad, to my family. You can’t justify murdering an adult, regardless of what they say about my Dad being a target because he was in the Army. You definitely can’t justify trying to murder four young children.”