30 April 2012 Edition
The Loughgall Martyrs
Remembering the Past
‘The British Army and RUC had everything in their favour: personnel, weaponry and communications. Our Volunteers died courageously and we salute them and pledge our commitment to pursue the goal of peace and justice for the Irish people’ – East Tyrone Brigade, Irish Republican Army
DURING THE WAR between the Irish Republican Army and British crown forces in the 1970s and 1980s, both sides suffered many military reverses and successes. During the mid-1980s, the IRA increased the pressure with more direct attacks on British military installations, including heavily-fortified RUC and British Army bases.
Between January and May 1987, there were IRA mortar-bomb attacks on barracks at Crossmaglen, Dunmurray, Newtownstewart, Kinawley and Belcoo as well as numerous gun and grenade attacks on British installations and members of the crown forces. As the month of May began, the IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade was preparing a major attack on the RUC barracks in the village of Loughgall, County Armagh.
In Dungannon, on Friday 8 May, the IRA commandeered a mechanical digger and a van. A 200lb bomb was placed in the bucket of the digger. An IRA Volunteer, guarded by comrades, drove the digger. Other Volunteers followed in the van. At Loughgall, the digger was driven through the wire fence surrounding the barracks and the bucket with the bomb was positioned beside the building. The Volunteers in the digger withdrew to the rest of the unit in the van.
Unknown to the Volunteers, they had entered a ring of steel laid by the British forces who opened up with a hail of gunfire on the IRA unit. In and around the van, six Volunteers were killed and another two a short distance away. In a statement later, the IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade said that Volunteers who escaped the ambush saw some of the eight who died being shot on the ground after being captured. The IRA statement continued:
“The British Army and the RUC had everything in their favour - personnel, weaponry and communications. Our Volunteers died courageously and we salute them and pledge our commitment to pursue the goal of peace and justice for the Irish people.”
The Loughgall ambush was the greatest loss of life suffered by the IRA in a single incident since the Black and Tan War.
The IRA Volunteers who died were: Tony Gormley (24), Patrick Kelly (30), Pádraig McKearney (32), Jim Lynagh (31), Eugene Kelly (25), Declan Arthurs (21), Gerard O’Callaghan (29) and Seamus Donnelly (19).
Both Gormley and Arthurs were moved to join the IRA after the death of Tyrone Hunger Striker Martin Hurson in 1981. Lynagh, O’Callaghan and McKearney had been imprisoned, the latter taking part in the famous September 1983 break-out from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. Eugene Kelly, Patrick Kelly and Seamus Donnelly had experienced much harassment from the British forces and were experienced active service Volunteers.
The British forces had created a killing zone within their ring of steel. As well as the eight Volunteers, an uninvolved civilian was cut down and died in the hail of gunfire. He was Anthony Hughes (36). He was driving at least 200 yards away from Loughgall Barracks when the British poured volleys of shots into his car, killing him and seriously injuring his brother, Oliver.
The funerals of the eight Volunteers saw a huge outpouring of grief, anger and determination from Irish republicans. From the political establishment there was no condemnation of the violence of the British forces. Fianna Fáil Foreign Minister Brian Lenihan blamed the IRA which, he said, had “trapped young people into the cycle of violence”. The DUP’s Willie McCrea said “justice has been done”; the UUP’s Ken Maginnis said he was “encouraged”, while British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock welcomed this “victory against men of violence”.