A ghost estate and an empty grave: ‘I don’t think Northern Ireland was worth one life’

The O’Dowds moved South after three of the family were murdered but some wounds never heal

Long before the property market collapsed south of the Border, the North had its own ghost estate, a scattering of homes abandoned after paramilitary murderers had left them uninhabitable psychologically for survivors.

The O’Dowds’ remote farmhouse in Ballydougan, Co Down is one such home. An L-shaped, single-storey cottage, its windows and doors are blinded by breeze blocks, the poor land surrounding it sold for grazing. It is only fit for cattle now.

But it was a full house on Sunday, January 4th, 1976, as Kathleen and Barney and five of their children, including Barry (24) and Declan (19) were entertaining Barney’s brother Joe and eight other members of his family when UVF gunmen burst in and shot dead Barry, Declan and Joe (61). Barney was gravely wounded.

At the funeral, Kathleen's grief-stricken face told in a few etched lines of the toll the Troubles took

A co-ordinated UVF attack, 10 minutes earlier and 20 miles south, in Whitecross, Co Armagh, claimed the lives of three Reavey brothers. The next night, republicans massacred 10 Protestant workmen in neighbouring Kingsmills and the North verged on civil war. The news cycle churned, leaving the O’Dowds to bury their dead. For the first time.


At the funeral, Kathleen’s grief-stricken face told in a few etched lines of the toll the Troubles took. Barney, in hospital, mourned alone. Terrified that the terrorists might return, fearful that her remaining sons might be lured into seeking revenge, Kathleen persuaded Barney to abandon their home since 1953 and settle in the South. When she died in 1999, she was buried not in her native North but near Navan, her adopted home.

The family then made a decision that would not be out of place in a Greek tragedy, symbolising somehow the unresolved trauma of the Troubles, the fathomless depth of familial love: Kathleen’s four surviving sons would exhume their brothers’ bodies and rebury them beside their mother in Meath. A family torn apart would be reunited.

It was very rewarding in a funny sort of way. It sounds horrific but it wasn't, believe it or not

“An awful lot of people would disagree with it,” says Noel, the eldest surviving son, but “Barney didn’t want the grave in the North to go to rack and ruin. There’d be no one there to look after them.”

The family applied for permission. The health service provided protective clothing, disinfectant and screens. The RUC stood guard outside Clare chapel’s graveyard. Watched over by Barney, on August 31st, 2000, Noel, Ronan, Cathal and Loughlin took turns unearthing 6ft of soil. They were helped by a neighbour, Eamon Cairns, two of whose own sons, Rory (18) and Gerard (22), lay buried just a few feet away. The two brothers had also been murdered by loyalists in their home, 300 yards from the O’Dowd farmhouse but 17 years later.

“My sisters were against us doing it ourselves,” recalls Noel. “They thought it would be tough on us, but why would you involve anyone else? It was very rewarding in a funny sort of way. It sounds horrific but it wasn’t, believe it or not.”

When she told me an elderly neighbour had died, I asked: "Who shot her?" A natural death was unfamiliar. I was eight.

As it had rained heavily the night before, the digging only took a few hours. The remains were transferred into new coffins. They travelled south together, passing the Fairways Hotel in Dundalk, once a regular Saturday night haunt for Noel and his brothers. “I thought that was quite poignant,” says Noel. “I lost not just two brothers but my two closest friends.”

Barry and Declan were reburied that evening after a short prayer service. “My son got the chance to carry the coffins,” recalls Noel. “He thought it was the closest he would ever get to them. It was just an emotional day. They were our own flesh and blood.”

Everyone in Tullylish parish knew the O’Dowds. They delivered the milk that you put on your cereal in the morning and the coal that kept you warm at night. So when word of the atrocity broke, it sent a chill through the entire community. If such a harmless, hard-working family could be targeted, who was safe? My mother put us to bed early that night in the dark for fear of what a light might attract. Months later, when she told me an elderly neighbour had died, I asked: “Who shot her?” A natural death was unfamiliar. I was eight.

Forty-five years later, having published an article for this paper, Dirty Linen, about the impact of the Troubles, including the O'Dowd murders, Noel invited me to meet his father, Barney, still sharp at 98. I arranged with Noel to visit their old home, and other parts of the parish touched by the Troubles, to converse in the tense that those who have lost someone dear to them know as the ever present past.

We meet at Ballydougan Pottery, a handsome property owned by a cousin of Noel that once belonged to the Blanes, Protestant farmers who gave Barney his first job. Noel’s Ulster fry – the traditional heart attack on a plate – comes untraditionally stacked with a cocktail stick skewering it in place. The North has changed. It can afford to have notions now.

We pass the Protestant primary school, now Bleary Farmers’ Hall, where Barney and Joe were educated and where their mother worked as the cleaner. Pragmatic people, they weren’t prejudiced and the nearest Catholic school was too far to walk. It influenced them, made them ambitious.

“Barney and Joe were very staunch in their own way. They had great respect for Protestants. Whether that was reciprocal, I’d have my doubts. As they tried to buy land, build a business, a lot of Protestants would have resented that, getting above their station,” says Noel.

It beggars belief that the British government is still hiding behind 'national security'. What are they afraid of?

The O’Dowds were nationalists, not republicans. Barney and Joe were SDLP supporters, the first local Catholics to act as observers at polling stations. Others, however, were observing them.

Many Catholics were approached after Bloody Sunday to join the IRA. Noel joined the civil service around that time. "I had no time for violence, still haven't. The damage it did was unreal. There were three different strands [of violence]: republican, state and loyalist; and loyalist and state worked hand in hand. I don't think Northern Ireland was worth one life. If people could see the pain that it has caused. Even if there was a united Ireland tomorrow, would I want to go through the suffering over all those years? I wouldn't."

Police intelligence, however, suggests the O'Dowds were under surveillance since Declan was questioned by police over the bingo bus shooting... Although he was exonerated, he was now a marked man

Not everyone in his wider family agreed. Violence can radicalise as well as revolt. A cousin was 22 when he was convicted of the murder of an off-duty 34-year-old UDR man in 1984. In an Irish Times interview in 2003, he cited the murders of his cousins and uncle as a factor in him joining the IRA.

Within a couple of miles, Noel shows me where an IRA bomb killed three British soldiers in 1972; the site of Bleary Darts Club, where the UVF killed three Catholics in April 1975; the bend in the road outside Gilford where in August 1975 unknown gunmen shot up a bingo bus full of Catholics, killing two; and the bar in Gilford where the INLA murdered three Protestants in a sectarian bomb attack on New Year’s Eve, 1975, four days before the O’Dowd family was attacked. Police intelligence, however, suggests the O’Dowds were under surveillance since Declan was questioned by police over the bingo bus shooting. A car he had sold supposedly resembled the getaway vehicle. Although he was exonerated, he was now a marked man.

Six years ago, the O’Dowd and Reavey families issued a joint statement accusing the British government of covering up collusion between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. “It beggars belief that the British government is still hiding behind ‘national security’,” said Barney O’Dowd. “What are they afraid of? Is it because of the probable involvement of RUC agent Robin Jackson in the attack on our home? The HET [Historical Enquiries Team] report on the Miami Showband massacre established beyond any reasonable doubt that Jackson was an agent linked to the RUC.”

Last month, Miami survivors and relatives of those murdered were awarded nearly £1.5 million (€1.75 million) in damages to settle claims against the British ministry of defence and the PSNI over suspected collusion with the loyalist murderers.

Noel drives us to his old home off Plantation Road. Invisible from the road, 150 yards down a winding laneway, you would have to know it was there, which suggests the killers had local knowledge. Noel regularly visits family nearby but rarely comes here. “It only makes your heart heavy.”

Joe got up and made a dive, Joe was lying here, Barry was in this corner. Dad crawled over Joe's body into the hall

A modern house beside the laneway has a trampoline and toys in the garden – a generation growing up in peace. The O’Dowds delivered milk and gathered empties every morning before primary school. In winter, the frozen cream would turn the foil cap into a cone. The only day off was Christmas Day. They had fun, though, says Noel, playing football in the meadow. During the 1970 World Cup he was Pelé but mostly he was Martin Chivers, the Spurs striker.

Tucking the ends of trouser legs into socks to protect them from mud, then clambering over a padlocked six-bar gate, triggers memories of childhood but I chide myself that this was where innocence died.

“This is the scene of the crime,” says Noel, as a rabbit darts across the lane. “This was a hive of activity, with the coal lorry, the milk van, people coming and going, but no one heard a car that night.” The sound of our feet reminds me of BBC archive footage of the funeral, the only noise the scrape of mourners’ shoes, following the cortege to a country chapel, an all too traditional route. The killers’ feet would have been almost silent, creeping down a green boreen and over fields.

“There used to be a nice lawn there and a lovely orchard,” says Noel. This is one corner of what became known as the Murder Triangle, clotted with a glut of rotten apples.

Noel had been playing cards that afternoon but his luck was out and Barry’s was in. Noel had missed Mass as he’d been out late the night before and his luck ran out again as at the third time of his mother’s asking he set off for the evening service in Craigavon, the Sabbath’s last-chance saloon. He returned minutes after the shooting. “I could hear my mother shouting: ‘is that you, Noel? Go and get your uncle Frank, your father and them have all been shot dead.’”

If Noel had a narrow escape, so did Ronan and Loughlin, only 16 and 17 but old enough, in the Troubles’ callous calculus, to be shot. They were at their uncle Frank’s.

The house is a silenced witness to the needless damage done. There is some light from a hole in the roof and from our phones. Pigeons roost in the kitchen, where Kathleen retreated after being confronted by the gunmen at the front door, her daughters Eleanor and Mary sheltering behind a sofa, Declan passing her in the hall to see what the commotion was.

When the ambulance men lifted Barry's body, the coins he'd won at cards fell out

“He was shot dead here,” says Noel as we stand in the hallway. “He just fell there. That was one of the bullet holes.” He indicates a strike mark on the kitchen door frame. We move to the sitting room, where Barney, Joe and Barry were shot. Noel describes the scene, the couch where Joe was sitting, the piano near which Barry sat. The room had just been renovated, with a new picture window and fireplace, its crazy paving the height of 1970s style. Joe’s last words were to compliment Barney on the fine job. “Joe got up and made a dive, Joe was lying here, Barry was in this corner. Dad crawled over Joe’s body into the hall.”

We move to the bedrooms and I admire the tiled floor and old lath and plaster. “That’s where the two of them were laid out. Do you see this room here? I was born in this room, myself and Loughie. Could have died here. Probably should have. I don’t know why I escaped.” Cathal (11) was standing here when he saw the gunman.

There is a sleeping bag in one of the rooms. Who would sleep here?

Outside again, in the light, there are green fields and rosehips and hedgerows as far as the eye can see. It is so peaceful now. “You’d wonder what it’s all about, wouldn’t you?” says Noel. “Think of my poor mother.”

When the ambulance men lifted Barry’s body, the coins he’d won at cards fell out.

Amid the bleak accounts in the witness statements of the murders are little acts of love like candles in the darkness. As Kathleen retreats to the kitchen, a relative Joe McCorry sees his five-year-old son Michael appear behind her and pulls him on into the kitchen, where he cradles him and his other son Philip. Bernadette, Joe O’Dowd’s daughter, has her seven-year-old niece Aine on her knee. When the shooting starts, she closes her eyes, covers Aine’s mouth and holds her tight, perhaps lest a scream might draw fire. When the shooting stops, she hears her uncle Barney say: “My God, my poor son.” Her sister Deirdre hears Barney crying over his son. Another sister, Una, says an Act of Contrition into the ears of her father, Joe, Barry and Declan. Mary gets whiskey for her mother and father.

When we remember loved ones we have lost, we reanimate them, make them come alive even for those who never knew them.

As a child, Barry had spent six months in hospital with osteomalacia, requiring weights on his legs to build up his muscles, he was a strong, fearless boy. He had to wear a calliper but broke it so many times they were told it was too expensive to repair. He once rode the family’s Connemara pony bareback right into a neighbour’s kitchen; and swung from the rafters in the barn. “When the gunmen came, Uncle Joe, in Dad’s words, died mid-air as he leapt at the gunman,” Mary said. “Barry tried to get away. It was poignant, when presented with that, there was nothing to do but try to hide like a child.”

He was a natural musician. The others had lessons but he didn’t need them. He could just listen to a tune and play it on the banjo. While the others thought country music was distinctly uncool, as they liked Deep Purple and T-Rex, Barry recognised Johnny Cash’s greatness.

“Barry had a good attitude to life. He didn’t have fear or suffer from anxiety,” says Noel. “I would, maybe more so now, but nothing ever worried him.”

“Declan was the repository of all Dad’s hopes and dreams,” says Mary. “We only learned afterwards what a blow it was for Dad losing Declan because he was the one he intended would take over the business. He had the aptitude, he was very friendly with customers. Dad was clearly very ambitious in terms of being seen to be a Catholic who’d against the odds built his business.”

Every night instead of setting the table for 10, suddenly there were so few knives and forks and cups and saucers round the table

Noel says: “Mum made Declan give up the milk round. We only realised afterwards what a huge thing that was. That was done to keep him safe.”

Joe was Barney’s oldest brother, “a great man, very resolute, a real businessman”, says Noel. “He was small and stocky, but had a big voice.” He worked in England during the war, saving £450, enough to buy a farm although his mother had to ask a Protestant friend to bid for it as selling land to a Catholic was frowned upon.

The O’Dowds’ wounds have never healed. Noel has lived in the South for almost 50 years but it took him a long time to settle. “Some days you feel better than others. It took me about five years to cry. I hated it down here at the start, even though I was married and had a family. I felt like a refugee at first. But Navan has been very good to us. We have all done well.”

Mary, by contrast, had already got used to life away. A Trinity College Dublin graduate, she was training to be a teacher in Newcastle when the murders happened.

“I had got to hate the North, I still hate it, I have to say, absolutely hate it. The day after the boys died, after all the chaos, I woke up that morning and for a split second forgot what had happened, then you realise the life that you thought you had had completely vanished.

“Every night instead of setting the table for 10, suddenly there were so few knives and forks and cups and saucers round the table. Even though the damage had been done, we were terrified at night. I insisted on pulling wardrobes across windows, which was ridiculous.”

Mary recalls with gratitude the community’s support but singles out one neighbour, Eamon Cairns. “A quiet, intuitive man, he made no fuss, just arrived, sat, chatted and soothed us with his steady presence. This went on for a long time, saw us through the darkest of the winter days until the spring came and with it the return of our father.”

Barney told Wave, a victims’ support group: “I’d wait till Kathleen went to sleep and I slipped out and I walked the roads, some nights all night until daylight. I used to go and look at people’s cattle in fields. We were so fortunate that Kathleen forced us to go South, because neighbours went through the same thing but they stayed and they went through hell. It’s not away from us, do you know what I mean? Oh by no means. It can’t go away, it just can’t go away.”

Tullylish: one parish, 20 murders

June 18th, 1972: An IRA booby-trap bomb in Bleary kills three British soldiers: Sgt-Maj Arthur McMillan, a 37-year-old married father of one from Hull; Sgt Ian Mutch, a married 31-year-old from Nairn; and Lance-Cpl Colin Leslie (26) from Kirkwall, Orkney. They had been searching a house belonging to a man who had been interned briefly the year before.

August 22nd, 1972: Joe Fegan, a 28-year-old lorry driver, married with four children, was one of nine people killed when an IRA bomb exploded prematurely at Newry customs clearing station. He lived beside Clare chapel. When Brexit raised the spectre of a return to customs posts on the Border, Simon Carswell wrote about this atrocity on the front page of The Irish Times. The then taoiseach Leo Varadkar brought the newspaper to an EU summit dinner to highlight the dangers to the fragile peace of the British government's approach to leaving the EU.

April 27th, 1975: Three Catholics were shot dead by the UVF at Bleary Darts Club: John Michael Feeney (45), a huntsman married with eight children; Joseph Toman (48), a joiner, who was married with six children; and barman Brendan O'Hara (38), a married father of four.

August 1st, 1975: A gun attack just outside Gilford on a minibus carrying nine locals from a bingo session in Banbridge back to Bleary resulted in the deaths of Joe Toland, a 78-year-old father of 12, and the driver, Jimmy Marks (51), a married father of two who died from his wounds in Craigavon hospital five months later, on the day of the O'Dowds' funerals. Three women were seriously injured.

Lost Lives, a thick book whose Bible-thin pages document every Troubles death, attributes the attack to the UVF “according to reliable loyalist sources”. Although the victims and survivors were all Catholic, and the attack happened the night after after the UVF attack on the Miami Showband, which also involved a minibus travelling from Banbridge, the RUC suspected the IRA, seemingly confirmed when the HET inquiry connected two weapons used to the IRA.

However, in 2017, John Weir, a former RUC man and member of the UVF’s Glenanne gang, told the Irish News that the attack was carried out by his gang including suspected British agent and UVF commander Robin Jackson. The killings are among those being investigated by Kenova, a court-ordered review led by former English police chief Jon Boutcher into the Glenanne gang’s crimes.

The bus attack would indirectly lead to the murder of the O’Dowds, as Declan was one of several local men questioned by the police about a car which he had sold that evening, which eyewitnesses claimed resembled the car used by the gunmen. A two-door Mini was an unlikely vehicle for a gang of gunmen to use. Getaway vehicles are usually abandoned and set on fire to destroy forensic evidence, whereas the driver of the car Declan sold was on his way to a dance in Dundalk when he was briefly detained by the RUC. Although the police cleared Declan of any involvement, his name and that of his family had been brought to the attention of local loyalists.

December 31st, 1975: An INLA bomb on the Central Bar on Gilford's Mill Street kills Richard Beattie, a 44-year-old local man who was married with five children; William Scott, a 28-year-old civil servant; and Sylvia McCullough, a 31-year-old married woman from nearby Tullylish. Her husband said: "The building just caved in around us. One minute my wife was standing beside me; the next she wasn't there. I never saw her again." (According to Lost Lives, the atrocity was in revenge for the killing on December 15th of Ronald Trainor, a 17-year-old member of the IRSP, the INLA's political wing, when his home in Ballyoran Park, Portadown, was bombed and shot up by the UVF. His mother, Dorothy, a Protestant married to a Catholic, had been shot dead a year earlier. His father was shot too but survived. His brother Thomas, an INLA member, would be killed by the UVF in March 1978.)

January 4th, 1976: Joe, Barry and Declan O'Dowd are murdered in Ballydougan, Co Down.

February 5th, 1977: Bobby Harrison, a 50-year-old RUC reservist, is shot dead in Gilford. He was a married father of two, an assistant nurse in Bannvale special care hospital for more than 20 years, an Orangeman, a member of a flute band, and an entertainer in a singing duo with his brother. "Barney would have been friendly with him," says his son Noel O'Dowd. "They were lovely people."

April 9th, 1984: Trevor May, a 28-year-old telephone engineer from Tullylish, who was married with a two-year-old child, was killed by an IRA bomb which exploded under his car as he left work in Newry. The family minister said: "I am speaking on behalf of his wife when I say that Trevor never imagined himself as a threat. The community is shocked and dismayed. The Territorial Army was a hobby. His wife is devastated."

An IRA statement said it saw “no distinction between members of the RUC, British army, UDR or Territorial Army. All are enemies of the Irish people.”

February 22nd, 1989: Pat Feeney (32), single, from Laurencetown, was shot dead while working as a nightwatchman at the Ewart Liddell linen mill in Donaghcloney. His uncle, John Michael Feeney, had been shot dead in 1975.

October 29th, 1993: Brothers Gerard (22) and Rory (18) Cairns are shot dead in their home in front of their sister Róisín, whose 11th birthday they had just been celebrating. The family home was just 300 yards away from that of the O'Dowds. In an interview given to mark their 10th anniversary, their father Eamon said: "When you hit your 40s and 50s and find you don't have the same oul power, by Jesus you see your son being able to lift the wheelbarrow and pile the blocks in and boy does it give you satisfaction . . . Do you think for one minute that I would be heaping praise on my children now if they were alive? They would never hear these words. It's only when you lose something that you realise what you have lost."

One gun, 12 murders

The weapon used to shoot the O’Dowds was a standard British army-issue Sterling submachine gun (SMG), the same gun was used in nine other murders, all but the last attributed to the Glenanne gang, made up of UVF men and rogue serving or former RUC and UDR members.

October 23rd, 1972: Armed UVF men raid a UDR/TAVR base in Lurgan, stealing 85 rifles and 21 SMGs. A British army briefing paper sent to the prime minister on "Subversion in the UDR" says collusion was "highly probable".

October 23rd, 1973: Twelve UVF men raid Fort Seagoe, the armoury of E Company, 11 UDR Portadown. They steal two Sterling SMGs, along with rifles, pistols and other equipment. A declassified security report in the British National Archives cites "grounds to suggest that the raiders had assistance from H or B Coy 11 UDR".

January 17th, 1974: Daniel Hughes (72) a retired farmer, is shot dead at Boyle's Bar, Main St, Cappagh, Co Tyrone. No one was ever convicted.

May 7th, 1974: Bar manager James Devlin (45) and his wife Gertrude (44) a librarian, both SDLP members, are shot dead at Congo, Dungannon, Co Tyrone. A UDR private was convicted of their murders.

February 10th, 1975: Eugene Doyle (18) and Arthur Mulholland, a 65-year-old farmer, are shot dead at Hayden's Bar, Gortavale, Co Tyrone. No one was ever convicted.

July 31st, 1975: Fran O'Toole (29) and a father of two, lead singer of the Miami Showband; and band members Tony Geraghty (23) and engaged; and Brian McCoy (33) are shot dead at Buskhill, Newry, Co Armagh. A UDR sergeant and a lance-corporal were convicted of their murders. Last month survivors and relatives of those murdered settled claims against the British ministry of defence and the PSNI over suspected collusion with the loyalist murderers. In 2011 a report by the HET raised collusion concerns. It found that Robin "The Jackal" Jackson, a one-time UDR member, UVF leader in Mid-Ulster and suspected RUC Special Branch agent, had been linked to one of the murder weapons by fingerprints. He claimed in police interviews he had been tipped off by a senior police officer to lie low after the killings. He is said to have been involved in more murders than anyone else in the entire conflict.

January 4th, 1976: Joe, Barry and Declan O'Dowd are shot dead at Ballydougan, Co Down. While the Police Ombudsman in Belfast asked the Public Prosecution Service last November to consider charging a former RUC officer over the Reavey murders that same night, no one has ever been charged over the O'Dowd murders. Nor is it likely. The two chief suspects are dead.

Barney told the RUC the gunman was a local man he had known for 20 years, having recognised his voice and face despite an amateurish mask. An anorak seized from the suspect tested positive for firearms residue. The same man had also been named in an anonymous phone call to the confidential RUC phone line. The detective, however, felt the description closely matched that of Robin Jackson. There is, however, no record of Jackson being questioned.

February 29th, 1980: Brendan McLoughlin (35) a married father of three and Housing Executive employee, is shot dead at Clonard Street, Belfast. Three UVF men were caught with the weapon by the RUC shortly after the murder and were later convicted of murder. Ballistics joined the dots to the previous murders, a constellation of atrocities.

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times