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Funeral director Hugh J Dougal led scores of mourners during the Troubles

By Ivan Little

During the Troubles, funeral director Hugh J Dougal became a familiar face on news reports as he led mourners at scores of funerals. Now, his famous family firm O'Kanes is marking its 150th anniversary.

He's made a living out of death, but undertaker Hugh J Dougal prefers to forget about the day that he came close - too close - to meeting his maker in a Belfast cemetery 27 years ago.

The veteran funeral director, who has lost count of the number of people he has buried was, like so many others on that infamous afternoon, forced to dive to the ground at Milltown cemetery as loyalist killer Michael Stone unleashed his gun and bomb attack on mourners attending an IRA funeral in March 1988.

"It was incredible. Just sheer shock. I couldn't believe what was happening all around me and everyone else," says 69-year-old Hugh who, although he has officially retired, is still involved in his O'Kanes undertaker's firm in Belfast, one of the oldest in the city.

Stone, who was trying to kill Sinn Fein leaders including Gerry Adams, threw grenades as the coffins of three IRA members who had been killed by the SAS in Gibraltar were about to be lowered into the ground at the Republican plot.

As the crowd fled towards the M1 motorway, Stone opened fire with a pistol and threw more bombs at people who were giving chase.

Three people were killed in the packed cemetery and at least 50 were hurt.

Hugh recalls: "Nobody really knew what was happening at first. But then came the panic as people started to realise these were real bombs going off. Some people tried to get behind headstones for cover, but I just hit the floor."

Funeral cars were hastily pressed into service as make-shift ambulances to rush the injured to the nearby Royal Victoria Hospital.

For Hugh, Milltown was one of a long line of dreadful days in his undertaker's career which saw his face becoming well-known throughout Ireland and, indeed, across the world during the Troubles.

And that's because the sight of Hugh in his black undertaker's garb at funerals became part and parcel of TV coverage in the wake of the incessant spiral of murders here.

But as well as conducting funerals, O'Kanes also had the contract from the coroner's office in the greater Belfast area to collect bodies from the places where victims had been killed. The footage of the undertaker's vans driving in and out of police cordons which had been mounted around murder scenes became an ever present in news reports.

"It was day and night for us," says Hugh.

"Sometimes, we were working round the clock lifting bodies. It was hard seeing man's inhumanity to man so close."

O'Kanes had the contract for 30 years and Hugh and his colleagues not only had to deal with hundreds of bodies, but they too came under attack from mobs and from gunmen on occasions.

Because of the sensitivities involved - even after so many years - Hugh is still reluctant to single out too many incidents which stand out for him or to go into detail about what he saw during atrocities like Bloody Friday or the McGurk's bombing.

But it's clear that the barbarity of the Shankill Butchers still haunts Hugh, who had to lift the bodies of many of the 23 tortured victims, who often had their throats cut by their murderers.

"What they did to those people was terrible," says Hugh. And he admits it wasn't a job for the faint-hearted.

But then, the very idea of becoming an undertaker is not something that would appeal to most people, even in the event of 'normal' deaths.

He agrees: "I know it's not for everyone.

"But what I have always tried to do is to comfort the families of the people whose funerals we are arranging, and to reassure them that I'm doing my best for their loved ones."

O'Kanes is marking its 150th anniversary this week with an open day in its Donegall Street building, which has become something of a landmark in Belfast.

The founder of the firm, Edward O'Kane, used to live there and opened up his undertaker's in 1865 on a smaller scale across the way in Little Donegall Street before the family home was converted by his son Hugh into the new base for the business because it was a bigger space.

Hugh Dougal's grandfather, who shared the same name as him, became a director of O'Kanes in the Thirties after he moved from his own transport and carrier business in May Street to work full-time with the funeral firm.

The Dougals eventually bought O'Kanes in 1940, but kept the company's original name.

And names are something which obviously mean a lot to the Dougals. For over the last six generations there has always been a Hugh Dougal in the family.

The firm now have a workforce totalling 12, they have branches on the Falls and Ormeau Roads and they have a fleet of the most up-to-date hearses and limousines

But the horse power used to be of a somewhat different ilk. For in the early years, horses were used to pull carriages with coffins and 10 animals were kept in stables on the O'Kane premises.

In the old days, too, coffins were made in-house by a team of skilled craftsmen who were based beside the stables.

Now, the coffins are all bought in from manufacturers around Ireland.

O'Kanes prides itself in having been the first undertakers in Belfast to introduce motorised hearses in 1914, but there's still a funereal connection with the space where the stables once stood - it's now used by a company who make shrouds.

"The old cobbles are still there, under the floors," says Hugh, who joined his family firm as a trained mechanic in 1964 to work on the hearses before becoming a fully-fledged member of the funeral team and eventually the man in charge.

His son Hugh Dougal (V) joined O'Kanes in 1999 from the banking sector and became operational manager four years later, redesigning the funeral home in 2009/10.

O'Kanes have conducted the funerals of high profile people in Belfast down the decades, notably that of comedian Frank Carson, who died three years ago. Scores of fans and friends paid their respects as Frank's body lay in state beneath a huge picture of the comedian at the Chapel of Rest in O'Kanes before his funeral was held across the street in St Patrick's Church.

Hugh Dougal knew Frank well. "He was always popping in to see us when he was home. He always had a joke for us," says Hugh, who adds that while the facilities for funerals are obviously more modern nowadays, the traditions of committals in Ireland, north and south, are still largely the same as they ever were.

He adds: "English funerals are totally different. Families here are involved in everything and have a say about what they want, but in England they are told when the funerals will be and when they can see the remains of their loved ones."

It takes longer for people in England to bury their dead and Hugh reckons one reason is that many undertakers routinely take weekends off.

"But we are a 24/7 operation," says Hugh, who is a former president of the National Association of Funeral Directors, who have a strict code which all undertakers here must follow for burials or cremations.

But more and more families are having to opt for the latter option, because cemeteries here are running out of room for burials.

"There's still plenty of space at Roselawn, but the likes of Carnmoney, Milltown, and Blaris are struggling for new burial ground and the City Cemetery has no new graves at all now."

But, of course, Northern Ireland wouldn't be Northern Ireland if there weren't different hearses for different courses.

Some undertakers are readily identified with Protestant funerals, others like O'Kanes with Catholic ones.

But he says things are changing.

"We do some Protestant funerals, but not many. However we are getting more requests all the time from a range of denominations. And then there are the likes of Indian and Chinese funerals, which involve very different rituals and traditions," says Hugh who, even though his workload has been scaled back, is still in demand as an undertaker because so many people request his services.

"They are people whose families I have known for a very long time. And I'm only too happy to be there for them."

For Hugh and his colleagues, who include his wife Frances and daughter Cathy, the work of an undertaker is unsurprisingly not a bundle of laughs.

Some of the most heart-warming moments for Hugh have come in churches as he listens to families sharing their poignant and humorous stories of their departed loved ones in eulogies. But he also has the odd laugh as people struggle to place his face when he's out and about on his downtime.

He explains: "They may have seen me at funerals or on the TV, but they sometimes can't remember where they know me from. Then they will tell me they didn't recognise me without my clothes on, namely my black suit."

Belfast Telegraph


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