‘Bandit country’: 25 years after the Belfast Agreement, the stigma lives on for Crossmaglen

Historian Úna Walsh and former Armagh footballer Oisín McConville show there is more to the town than its post-conflict reputation


Úna Walsh is dwarfed by the towering steel-clad walls of Crossmaglen police station.

The south Armagh historian looks impatient waiting for us outside Northern Ireland’s most fortified police building and darts across the Cullaville Road when we pull up.

“I was wary of standing too long in case I’d be asked why I was loitering,” Walsh says with a throaty laugh.

The Irish Times’ photographer, who covered the area during the Troubles, nods in agreement while snapping away.

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“In the aul days, by this stage they’d been out asking me what I was doing,” he tells Walsh.

It is a town that became synonymous with the North’s 30-year conflict.

In the months before the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the British army rebuilt its base at the police station – known as Operation Rectify, it was the largest British military airmobile operation since D-Day – to withstand attacks by the Provisional IRA’s South Armagh Brigade.

Every road in Crossmaglen had a checkpoint on it for the duration of the rebuild.

“In places like Fermanagh you always got the sense that something might happen – in Crossmaglen, you always got the sense that something would happen,” an ex-British soldier tells The Irish Times.

“I was down there for ‘Op Rect’. They weren’t expanding the station, they were mortar hardening it. They were making it so it could take more punishment from the IRA without collapsing.”

With a population of less than 1,200 during that period, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 British troops in and around the republican stronghold. Today, there are none.

“Back then, there was more of us than them,” says the former soldier who revisited the area a decade ago.

“It must have been a torment for them. Everywhere they went there was one of us.

“I never actually noticed the beauty of the place when I was on foot patrol but when I was on air mobile patrol, I could see it.

“We did ‘top cover’ over a stationary road patrol to suppress the threat of a sniper. When you did that you were flying over Slieve Gullion and Camlough mountain. Then you’d go, ‘Jesus, this place is stunning’.

“I can’t say I wasn’t scared but the idea of being killed by the sniper was kinda all right with me – because I would never hear the bang.

“I’d just hit the floor and be dead. It was the idea of being burned alive. That’s just terrifying, isn’t it?”

Much has changed in “Cross” in the 25 years since the Belfast Agreement – but the scars of the conflict run deep.

The people here work to improve things for themselves because they accept they’re not going to get anything from anybody else

—  Úna Walsh

The British army sangar (or “lookout post” as locals called it) that loomed over the small town’s market square for decades was demolished as part of the so-called “normalisation” plan in 2007.

As the last of the British military watchtowers in south Armagh, its removal was regarded as hugely symbolic.

“Sniper at Work” road signs with silhouettes of gunmen are gone and an occasional police car patrols a town where soldiers and police only ever travelled by helicopter for fear of being blown up by covert bombs.

On a rainy Friday lunchtime, the main activity in the square – named after Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich – is the steady trickle of customers buying fish from the back of a visiting fishmonger’s white van.

Outside Keenan’s Bar, an official Northern Ireland tourist information sign hangs which serves as the “centre point” for Walsh’s walking tours.

She is approaching her 70th birthday and has been a guide for the last 10 years.

“I am a south Armagh ambassador and lover of the oral tradition,” Walsh says.

“There certainly was a feeling here in 1921 that this area should have been in the South.

“There was a sense of abandonment, of how the South had let you go. And in this area, and it’s only my view, I think there is an ‘island mentality’.

“The people here work to improve things for themselves because they accept they’re not going to get anything from anybody else.”

A descendant of poet and rapparee, Séamus Mór Mac Murchaidh (who was hanged in Armagh Jail in 1750), Walsh is among a growing legion of voluntary ambassadors promoting the area’s geology and archaeology as well as its myths and legends, poets and scribes – often through music and poetry.

“My dad would have shown people around if they’d asked to see the place years ago so I’m only paying back the generations before,” Walsh explains.

If you walked down through the town you’d be guaranteed your bag would be taken off you by the soldiers

—  Oisín McConville

“The walks cover a unique borderland with 6,000 years of cultural heritage – that’s what south Armagh is.

“Even if you take the history out of it, this area is outstanding in its beauty. But it got little coverage by the tourist board compared to other places.

“Slieve Gullion – many people still don’t come and visit it.

“A lot of my stuff would be around the culture and heritage of this whole area. Places likes Creggan (a village beside Crossmaglen where the ‘lost’ O’Neill clan vault was accidentally discovered in a graveyard in 1973) are unique.”

Yet the presence of Crossmaglen’s sprawling high-fenced police station with its reinforced concrete walls and cameras – PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne likened it to a “relic from the Cold War” – is a constant reminder of the past amid peacetime progress.

The branding of south Armagh as “bandit country” by former Northern Ireland secretary Merlyn Rees in 1974 is a tag that persists; it was reinforced by a photograph Byrne tweeted on Christmas Day three years ago, showing him posing at the station gates beside officers armed with machine guns.

The post sparked a backlash and led to him ordering a report that found the station was “no longer fit for purpose”.

For the residents who lived through the Troubles, how do they feel about their town’s “lawless” reputation post-conflict? And will it remain a “place apart” for the next generation?

There’s a general feel-good factor that wasn’t there when I was growing up

—  Oisín McConville

“You think we would have got there by now, 25 years on,” says Oisín McConville, a former Crossmaglen and Armagh footballer.

“I suppose the stigma lives on. Simon Byrne’s tweet was just another knock for those who are trying to make sure things move on. What did he think that was going to do for tourism in the area? It really didn’t help.

“People have this image of what goes on in Cross and obviously certain aspects have fed into that over the years with criminality.

“But at the same time that’s not the day-to-day experience of people living here. There’s a general feel-good factor that wasn’t there when I was growing up.”

The 47-year-old All-Ireland winner was raised in a house on the Cullaville Road close to the army barracks. From an early age, he was told if a bomb exploded to “get down low” in the closest place he could find.

“A bomb went off one day, my sister walked into the house and she was stung from head to toe by hedge nettles. She didn’t even know she was stung, she was in that much shock,” McConville recalls. “It’s a very vivid image for me.”

Off the pitch, McConville struggled with a gambling addiction that led to him entering a residential rehab programme at the height of his club and county glory days in the noughties. He is now a trained mental health counsellor and also manages the Wicklow GAA senior football team.

As a young fellah, you’d kick the ball over the bar and if it went into the barracks they’d stick a knife in it and then throw it back over

—  Oisín McConville

He recalls a conversation with the late Paddy Short who ran Shorts’ pub in the town: “Anytime anything went on, journalists always went in there because Paddy was brilliant for a soundbite and a great talker.

“I remember we started to be successful at the football and going into him one day, and he says, ‘this is brilliant, we’ll no longer be known as bandit country, we’ll be known for the football we play’.

“I think that did change things, it changed perceptions. But I do think it’s almost come full circle again in that obviously because of some of the headlines we’re still getting, that people think that we’re outlaws here. Whereas that’s not the case.”

As a teenager, McConville cut through a field to get into St Oliver Plunkett Park, the home ground of Crossmaglen Rangers GAC, to avoid “getting hassle” from soldiers in the town.

In 1971, the British army requisitioned part of the ground – “We stole it, let’s be honest and then gave it back,” the ex-soldier says – and used it to land helicopters, often during training sessions.

“We just sort of got on with things because if you’re living under that sort of oppression, and it was oppression, it’s something that you carry with you. They treated us with disdain,” says Mc Conville, standing in the middle of Crossmaglen Rangers’ pitch.

“As a young fellah, you’d kick the ball over the bar and if it went into the barracks they’d stick a knife in it and then throw it back over.

“It might sound trivial but at that time, we didn’t have a lot of footballs.

“That might be your football for the evening and all of a sudden you had to go beg, borrow or steal to try and get a new one to continue on the training session.

“I know oppression might sound like a strong word but it definitely felt like that. It felt like everything you tried to do had some sort of block – that maybe wasn’t going on elsewhere.”

McConville leads us through the main entrance and surveys the ground where his children now train.

I suddenly got a promotion and was going to work in a helicopter. I thought, ‘will I die here?’

—  Alan Mains

The British army helipad has disappeared and a windowless army bunker that backed on to the police station has been replaced with a bread making factory.

“The pitch was squeezed, it wasn’t as big as it is now,” McConville says.

“But the walkway is still the same from where I would have come. If you walked down through the town you’d be guaranteed your bag would be taken off you by the soldiers or you’d be chased.

“As you went along, you got to know who was who. The paratroopers were obviously the ones with the red hats. So if they were in town you were afraid to go outside the door because they were the worst. They would literally batter you if they got you on your own.

“It was just constant to be honest.

“You go through your life and think, ‘ah that’s not really having any effect on me’ and then I had my own issues obviously,” McConville says.

“For a good part of my life, from [when] I was 16 to probably 29-30, you think, was that something I should have addressed earlier? And it was.

“But you don’t go running about Cross, going, ‘this is affecting my emotional condition’, you’d have been laughed out of the town at the time.

“But now, I think people realise the profound effect it did have on everyone.”

Between 1971 and 1997, there were 123 British soldiers killed in south Armagh – about a fifth of British military Trouble-related deaths in the North – along with 41 Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police officers and 75 civilians.

Alan Mains was posted to the area after patrolling the leafy suburbs of the Lisburn Road in Belfast as a young RUC sergeant in 1986.

“I suddenly got a promotion and was going to work in a helicopter. I thought, ‘will I die here?’” the retired senior police officer recalls.

When I was there as a young sergeant, I genuinely didn’t think I’d see 30

—  Alan Mains

Mains was stationed at Forkhill but regularly went to Crossmaglen where he and his colleagues were flanked by 15 soldiers when they went out on foot patrol.

“It was completely and utterly, and I mean utterly, alien to me; I hadn’t the first clue.

“Crossmaglen was flat and always open to attack. When the weather closed in, that meant helicopters couldn’t fly and you were left very vulnerable.

“The South Armagh Brigade considered themselves to be the elite of the IRA – and the sniper was very much part of the psych.”

Mains became deputy head of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and was involved in many high-profile cases, giving evidence to the Smithwick tribunal about claims of IRA/Garda collusion relating to the murders of two senior RUC colleagues.

“Some of the snipers were eventually caught, but during that period when they weren’t caught it was psychologically very difficult for police officers to go out and patrol,” Mains adds.

“When I was there as a young sergeant, I genuinely didn’t think I’d see 30.

“My team were probably the most vulnerable in that policing world of Northern Ireland, that’s a fact.

“But I will always say this: a lot of the people I met in south Armagh, to this day, I’m still very friendly with.”

I would have had to pick my route home, because if you ran into soldiers, the chances were you’d get hit with the butt of a gun

—  Oisín McConville

Nine months ago, Mains returned to the area to show an English visitor around.

It was his first time ever driving into Crossmaglen: “It was bizarre as I didn’t really know where I was going because I would have walked the roads, flew into a field and then walked on to another road. Your orientation by air is completely different.”

The main difference was “nobody tried to avoid me”, laughs Mains.

“It seemed much smaller, it was like going into somewhere new again. There was nothing readily identifiable other than the square,” Mains says.

“There’s no way in 1986 you could have foreseen where we are now because it was helicopters, it was the army, it was horrible, people were getting killed.

“You wouldn’t have had the foresight to think that one day this would be gone.”

For McConville, the slow pace of change in policing the area is frustrating.

While there is a police presence – “they would regularly be up at the church with speed guns” – it’s unlike other areas, he says.

“The policing is a wee bit more normal than it was but let’s face it, it’s not normal,” McConville adds.

His other “bugbear” is the lack of investment.

“The possibilities for Cross and surrounding areas are endless if the proper investment and proper faith was shown in the people of the area… but we’re actually doing okay.”

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The real measure of change is reflected in the lives of his three children: “They’re at an age now where, if they want, they can walk up the town on a Friday after school to get an ice-cream or do whatever they want to do.

“When I was 10 years of age and wanted to do that, I would have had to pick my route home, because if you ran into soldiers, the chances were you’d get hit with the butt of a gun.

“And that’s why, when I look at my kids, even though they probably feel hard done by because the amenities aren’t what they would be in a bigger town or city, I realise they know nothing about the other stuff.

“The life they are living in comparison to the life that guys like me had, when we were growing up at that age... it’s just completely poles apart. There’s no similarities at all.”