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'It came with a rap on my bedroom door' - Journalist Deric Henderson remembers the night his uncle was shot

'A knock on my bedroom door in the night ... then my mother told me Uncle Ted had been shot'

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A patrol similar to the one Edward was in when he was shot

A patrol similar to the one Edward was in when he was shot

Fatal patrol: Ted Megahey, uncle of Deric Henderson

Fatal patrol: Ted Megahey, uncle of Deric Henderson

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A patrol similar to the one Edward was in when he was shot

It came with a rap on my bedroom door in the summer of 1972. My mother looked in. She sounded in control, and then told me: "Ted has been shot." She had just returned from Derry, where her younger brother lay critically injured and on life-support in a private ward at Altnagelvin Hospital.

It was the middle of the night, and the family quickly adjourned to sit in silence in the front living room of our home in Omagh.

Ted Megahey had been in the front seat in the third of four Land Rovers heading in a convoy towards the Irish border to relieve regular soldiers on checkpoint duty on the Buncrana Road.

He had been wearing a beret as part of his Ulster Defence Regiment uniform, holding a self-loading rifle with the barrel pointing upwards and, according to one of the men with him, he was remarking about the fading skyline of the distant hills of Donegal.

"Isn't that lovely?" he asked.

Suddenly, the window of the passenger door shattered, sending shards and splinters of glass on top of him, the driver and the two men in the rear. The driver managed to stop 50 yards further on. Ted was still upright, leaning slightly to his right, but unconscious when they reached inside to carry him out, and by the time he was rested by the roadside they could hear his laboured breathing, and see he had been shot in the back of the head. He was bleeding badly and somebody radioed for an ambulance.

He died three days later on June 9, the 396th victim of the Troubles.

Uncle Ted was aged 45 and lived with his parents on the family farm at Leganvey House outside the village of Drumquin, 10 miles from Omagh. His father, Edward, a Protestant from Crumlin, Co Antrim, was a retired RUC officer who began his policing career with the Royal Irish Constabulary in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, and who went on to marry a woman from Portglenone. They had four daughters and two sons.

None of the grandchildren knew until that Sunday afternoon of the funeral that our grandmother, Mary Jane McCloskey, was once a Catholic. A group of strangers, her relatives, had arrived in the farmyard. Several hundred people walked the three miles behind undertaker Ian Duncan's hearse for the service at the local Church of Ireland on the far side of the village, where my grandmother had become a faithful, and very active, member of the parish.

It was a desperately sad occasion. There were a lot of tears, handshakes and commiserations, and it must have taken the best part of two hours before the last of the mourners had departed to leave the family to stand by themselves, and read the cards attached to dozens of floral tributes. The message on the wreath left by his parents read, 'Resting where no shadows fall'.

His plot, just yards from the church entrance, was the first to be dug at Lower Langfield. He was among a group of parishioners who had helped clear away trees and shrubbery to make way for the new graveyard.

Uncle Ted worked as a panel beater for the bus company, the Ulster Transport Authority, in Omagh. He was balding and retained handsome features, and although a lady from Castlederg had serious designs on him, he never married. He kept himself in great shape. He was a useful boxer, by all accounts, but outside the ring he could be just as quick with his temper and his fists. He was never one for standing back. He was no saint, but he was very well-liked within a close circle of friends.

He was a fast driver - especially at the wheel of an old black Austin A40, which once or twice ended up in ditches on the main Omagh-Drumquin road - and he later became the owner of a second-hand Jaguar with an English registration number, which attracted admiring glances. He was as proud as punch when he first pulled up outside our home in his gleaming new light-blue car.

I remember him wearing the dark green blazer with the crest of Omagh Academicals, and sipping water at the rugby club's then unofficial HQ, the front bar of the town's Royal Arms Hotel, pretending he had never lost his taste for vodka and lemonade. He once had a drink problem, but by that stage he hadn't touched alcohol in years. That's the way he was.

He was a man who had a lot of catching up to do, and in the years before he died he travelled far and wide, sometimes on bus excursions to various parts of continental Europe. My late mother loved him to bits. She used to make him sandwiches filled with Branston pickle, and apart from his brother, Deric, she probably found it more difficult than anyone else within the family to come to terms with the circumstances of his death.

It was an awful time. And yet it might never have happened. The night he was shot, he was standing in for a friend.

Somebody called the house to see if he was available, and within an hour or so he was linking up with other members of E Company, 6th Battalion UDR, based outside Newtownstewart, before being detailed to go to Derry. There was a briefing session at Fort George, a Ministry of Defence site close to the banks of the River Foyle, and then they headed off to take over from soldiers belonging to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Green Jackets. The checkpoint was in open countryside with just one house about 50 yards away. The traffic had been fairly heavy, but nobody heard or saw anything suspicious to give rise to alarm.

The regulars were waiting to be replaced, and the first of the Land Rovers was preparing to come to a halt when a single shot rang out. Just one.

Somebody noticed a flash, and one of the soldiers believed it may have come from the area of the house. But he couldn’t be sure. He later said: “I then formed the opinion that what I heard was the echo bouncing off the walls of the house.”

The IRA claimed responsibility for the shooting the day after Uncle Ted was buried.

Large parts of the city on the slopes on the western side of the Foyle were effectively no-go areas for police and troops, with many of the roads blocked by makeshift barricades. They could be viewed from the upper floors of the hospital, where we took turns to look out while maintaining a vigil of sorts, but in our heart of hearts we all knew it was only a matter of time.

I don’t remember who told me late that Friday afternoon that my uncle had died, but I do recall the distress and the heartache, and a grieving process that seemed to go on for ever. There was bitterness as well.

My grandfather was a formidable man who would reminisce from time to time about his policing days in Cookstown, Plumbridge, Carrickmore and his final posting to Drumquin. But he had moved on, retired, and bought the farm from a brother of the man, Felix Kearney, who wrote a famous ballad with the lines: ‘Drumquin, you’re not a city, but all the world to me …’

My grandfather got on well with his neighbours. He worked unbelievably hard, took great pride in his cattle and his land, and every one of us looked up to him. He always commanded our full attention.

However, unlike his wife — a great woman in the kitchen who collected antiques, especially clocks, and who was never happier than when playing cards with her local GP and helping out at the church — he wasn’t one for showing signs of emotion.

But like us all back then, he was completely broken. Devastation doesn’t even come close to describing how we all felt. It still reverberates to this day.

There are a couple of memorial stones. One of them is on the church wall at Langfield, where the extended family gather every Remembrance Sunday for the annual service and the laying of poppies, and another at a local Orange Hall. Uncle Ted was a member of the Orange Order. The inscription on his headstone at Lower Langfield reads, ‘Weep not for me, but courage take. Love one another for my sake’.

My parents and grandparents, as well as an aunt who returned from Canada, are now buried in that graveyard, but rarely does a week pass when I don’t think of Uncle Ted, and what happened that night all those years ago.

Deric Henderson is the former Ireland editor of the Press Association. After beginning his career with the Tyrone Constitution in his home town of Omagh, he went on to work for the Belfast Telegraph. He is also the author of the best-selling book Let This Be Our Secret, about how Colin Howell and his mistress, Hazel Stewart, murdered their spouses

Belfast Telegraph


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