President and police chief salute centenary of man who survived notorious Troubles atrocity

Barney O’Dowd’s family opposes British legacy Bill which might block inquiry into relatives’ murders

Barney O’Dowd celebrated his 100th birthday at his home near Trim, Co Meath on Wednesday, with his daughters, Mary and Eleanor, and sons, Noel, Cathal, Loughlin and Ronan.

It is a remarkable milestone for anyone – of the 476 Irish centenarians celebrated last year, only 72 were men – but even more so, given that he almost died 47 years ago.

On January 4th, 1976, Mr O’Dowd was shot and gravely wounded by loyalist paramilitaries in his farmhouse in Ballydougan, Co Down, during a family gathering to mark the end of the Christmas holidays. His eldest brother Joe (61) and two of his sons, Barry (24) and Declan (19), were murdered in the attack.

Mr O’Dowd missed their funerals because he was in intensive care after a life-saving operation. Brothers John (24), Brian (22) and Anthony (17) Reavey were murdered in a co-ordinated attack in Whitecross, Co Armagh on the same night.


Among the dozens of cards Mr O’Dowd received to mark his birthday was a letter from President Michael D Higgins, accompanying his centenarian bounty of €2,540, a gift from the State started in 1940 by then president Douglas Hyde.

In a handwritten postscript, Mr Higgins wrote: “I am conscious, I assure you, of the great sorrow inflicted on you, and personal suffering too, which makes it even more important, even at a distance. I will salute your indomitable spirit on the day, and recall those taken from you.”

Jon Boutcher, a former British chief constable who is leading a new investigation into the O’Dowd murders and related killings known as the Glenanne Gang series, sent his congratulations. “I have met many people who might consider themselves important and of a high status in society. None of these people hold a candle to you... You are an inspiration,” he wrote.

“Barney must be the oldest surviving victim of the Glennane gang,” said Noel O’Dowd. “We would like to see Jon Boutcher be allowed to complete his investigation into collusion between paramilitaries and security forces and have it published without delay.

“Barney has been involved with the Pat Finucane Centre for over 20 years in the quest for truth and justice and has seen many fellow victims and relatives pass away. We want to mark this occasion by reiterating our opposition to the British government’s proposed legacy Bill which seeks to shut down all attempts to secure justice and establish the truth. We would like to see an independent truth recovery process.

“No one has ever been charged or convicted with our brothers and uncle’s murders, despite ballistics evidence linking the murder weapon to other atrocities such as the Miami Showband massacre, in which evidence of collusion resulted in a large out-of-court settlement in 2021.”

The family moved to Co Meath in the summer of 1976. After Barney’s wife, Kathleen, died in 1999, the family decided to re-inter Declan and Barry beside their mother, with the surviving brothers personally exhuming the bodies.

Every family gathering since the murders has been overshadowed by that day, but Mr O’Dowd’s family was determined to celebrate a life well lived and count their blessings as well as remembering their losses.

“One of the reasons Barney has lived so long is his positive outlook,” Mary said. “He did not allow the poison of hatred to infect his life. I asked him what mark would he give himself if he were to score his life out of 10. He didn’t hesitate and said he would give himself a seven. I thought that was quite an astonishing response for someone who had lost two sons, the brother to whom he was closest and his wife of 49 years.”

Cathal said: “During his recovery, his doctor in the North recommended that he should have a whiskey every night, but only one – advice which he has followed religiously. He stopped driving only four years ago and cut a kilometre of hedges until two years ago. He had a strong work ethic all his life.”

Barney and Loughlin tended the family graves together until last year.

“Coming to Meath was heaven,” Eleanor recalled Barney telling her last year. “He drew great strength and satisfaction from seeing his children prosper and thrive away from the conflict and the warm welcome his family received in the county.”

The O’Dowd family also remembered their friends and neighbours, the Cairns family, two of whom, Rory (22) and Gerard (18), were murdered at their home in The Slopes, Ballydougan on October 28th, 1993, hours after their sister Róisín’s 11th birthday party.

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times