Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

'The hotel receptionist said I had to ring home - I instantly knew John was dead'

In an extract from his new book, George Larmour recalls how he phoned his mum from holiday to find out that his big brother had been murdered by the Provisionals.

I was born in 1949 in Belfast, at 35 Northumberland Street. The little terraced house has long gone, but the street is still there. It runs between the Shankill Road and the Falls Road. Memories remain of the great summer holidays I and my older brother, John, had as kids down at Robson's farm near Doagh: herding in cows for milking, mucking out pig byres, picking potatoes ... back-breaking work, but great fun.

Other days were spent 'up the road' in Woodvale Park. Like most kids with over-active imaginations, encouraged by regular celluloid adventures at the local cinemas - The Stadium or Wee Joe's - our favourite game was cowboys and indians, ambushing each other in the bushes. Those Wild West games always ended with a competition to see who could die best - that is, who could die the loudest.

One lasting memory was the occasion on which John took me to the Falls Baths. John thought nothing of jumping off the balcony into the deep end of the pool. This wild flight into six feet of chlorinated and kid-infested water was usually accompanied by a firmly-held nose and a scream of 'Geronimo!' for added effect. A mad leap that usually guaranteed that ill-fitting swimwear would end up around John's ankles or drifting somewhere across the surface of the pool.

This was a time - in the late-1950s and early-1960s - when Protestant kids from the Shankill Road thought nothing of learning to swim on the Catholic Falls Road. Magical shared memories that accompanied John and I into adulthood.

As much as I try to hold onto these memories, some recollections are fading with age and others have been deliberately erased, callously ambushed and wiped away by men with an insatiable appetite for evil - to be replaced by a choking shroud of grief and despair.

The day I learnt of John's murder changed things forever. John, an RUC officer, was off-duty when he was shot dead by the IRA while looking after the ice-cream parlour I ran on the Lisburn Road.

I and my young family were on holiday in Spain at the time. My wife, Sadie, and I weren't looking for luxury; just a quick week away, anywhere with a bit of sun and some fun for the kids.

We really needed a break from the hassle of work after an intense few months spent getting the ice-cream parlour, Barnam's, ready for business. The three months since we opened had been even more hectic, so a week away was just what we all needed.

It wasn't summertime - this was October - but maybe, we hoped, the sun would still be shining in Spain. "Sure, doesn't the sun always shine in Spain?" our cheery travel expert had reassured us. Maybe her comment wasn't so much a confirmation of the weather we could expect, but more a question of her own that she didn't really know the answer to.

We arrived at our destination late in the evening of Friday, October 7, 1988. It was dark, but our first impressions seemed okay. The next morning, we awoke with some excitement. However, we soon realised that it wasn't as cold as Belfast - it was bloody colder. And our travel expert's idea of 'a short walk' didn't match the half-hour trek we had to make to get to the nearest beach.

Fortunately, though, the kids loved the pool at the hotel, despite the lack of heat. So, we did our best to enjoy the trip and make the most of our well-earned holiday.

Lying reading a book on the inappropriately named 'sun loungers', as our young daughters splashed away to their hearts' content, seemed idyllic compared to the daily hassle we would be facing back in Belfast, with hordes of snotty-nosed kids pestering us in Barnam's.

It was mid-morning on Wednesday, October 12. We were making our way to the stairs to go up to our rooms, inspecting ourselves in the oversized mirror in reception to see how our tans were coming along. They weren't. Our colouring was more of a healthy, all-over flush from the short dips we had managed to brave in the unheated pool.

Suddenly, I heard someone call out my name. "Hola! Mr Lamar. Message please!" The man at reception was waving a piece of paper at me. "Fone home soonest" was scrawled across the piece of paper. The receptionist sensed my confusion. "You," he pointed at me. He put his fist to his ear. "Phone".

"I have to phone home?" I asked. "Si," he replied. He looked pleased he had managed to impart this important message, but concerned about what it might mean. I knew exactly what it meant.

I have no idea how, but at that precise moment, I knew my brother was dead.

From the hotel reception, I telephoned my mum back in Belfast. The phone rang just twice before I heard my sister's voice. "Mummy, it's George" I heard her say as she passed the phone to my mother.

"Are you coming home, son?" mum asked me at once. I didn't need to ask, but I did anyway. "What's happened?"

"The IRA shot John last night." I didn't need to ask where, but I did anyway. "In the parlour, in Barnam's," she said, her voice beginning to crack.

Although again I knew the answer, I asked the question anyway. "Is he dead?" "He is, son. Are you coming home?"

"Yes, I'll be home as soon as I can. Anyone else hurt?" I asked. "Yes - two customers." "Are they okay?" "I think so."

"Right, mum, I have to go, but I'll get home soon." "Please do, son. Please do."

I put the phone down. My wife stood staring at me as she held our young daughters' hands. She had worked out enough from the one-sided telephone conversation to know that something was seriously wrong.

"What's happened? Has your dad crashed the car?" Sadie asked at once. We had left our car behind for my father to use while we were away. Sadie had already said it might be too big for him to drive.

"No, it's not dad. It's John. The IRA shot him in Barnam's last night. He's dead." I reached to grab her as I saw her slump back against the wall and her legs start to buckle.

Her scream is something I will never forget. It seemed to go on forever in the stillness of the hotel lobby.

The guy on reception just stared at me. The look of recognition on his face said it all.

I contacted the local travel courier and hurriedly got us packed to go home. Our five-year-old was still asking why we couldn't go back to the pool when the car arrived to take us to the airport. The innocence of childhood.

There were no flights leaving for Belfast that day. We managed, however, to get seats on a flight to Heathrow, with a connecting flight from Gatwick to Belfast, courtesy of British Airways - a £1,200 dent in my credit card.

As the plane taxied to its allotted runway, the cabin crew handed out free UK newspapers. There was no escaping the claustrophobic wave of grief that rolled over us, as we watched row upon row of untanned tourists scan the front page headlines and turn the pages to read inside the detailed news reports on my brother's murder.

According to these articles, at the request of the RUC back in Belfast, Interpol was frantically searching Spain for the murdered officer's brother, who was holidaying there with his family. They had been asked to locate me and notify me of John's murder and arrange for our immediate return home.

I never did get a call from an Interpol agent. Sadly, the world's largest international police organisation, presumably with access to border passport control intelligence, proved woefully inept at finding an ordinary family of four soaking up the rain in Spain. Hopefully, they're having more success with some of the names on their Most Wanted list.

When we finally arrived at Heathrow, we were tired and, even with a hectic dash, it looked as if we were going to miss our connecting Gatwick flight to Belfast. Somehow, however, British Airways ground staff were now aware of our arrival and a very pleasant and caring lady had us whisked across to Gatwick and straight onto the plane.

Inevitably, when we saw them, my mum and dad looked utterly distraught, overcome with unbearable heartache. They were glad I was home, but nothing I said could ease their sorrow.

I went to the funeral parlour and stood close to my big brother. I felt very lonely.

  • Extracted from They Killed The Ice Cream Man by George Larmour, published by Colourpoint Books, £9.99, www.colour

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph