‘For the people of my province and the rest of Ireland
Bear in mind these dead:
I can find no plainer words.
I dare not risk using that loaded word, Remember...’
– John Hewitt
Da was adamant that we would not go to the pub to watch the match between Ireland and Italy. Perhaps because it was the day before Father’s Day – June 18th, 1994 – I let him convince us to watch from the comfort of our livingroom and maybe have a pint or two and something stronger should Ireland win.
Back home from the US on an impromptu trip in 1994, I know now that just by being there I had given him the perfect Father’s Day present.
By the end of the first half,I had forgotten about the pub. We didn’t care where we were because Ray Houghton had scored, and the national team was up 1-0 against the formidable Italians. How we roared with pride, Da on his feet, and my mother cheering and at the same time disappearing to the kitchen to make tea at half time. Jubilant, she was also afraid to watch.
Giants Stadium, usually home to the American kind of football, shimmered from a little TV in my parent’s living room. Resplendent in emerald green, natural grass on top of its artificial turf, its stands rocked with 60,000 Irish fans singing the Fields of Athenry. When the referee blew the final whistle, we erupted as though we had won the whole thing. It was official. Ireland 1, Italy 0. So this is what it feels like to win.
Unbeknownst to us and almost everyone else was that while we were beginning our victory dance during the second half, two men in boiler-suits, their faces hidden behind balaclavas, stormed into O'Toole's pub in Loughinisland, Co Down.
With an AK47 and a Czech-made rifle, they shot indiscriminately at the 15 men who were gathered around the bar, their backs to the door.
They killed six of them and, according to witnesses, laughed as they made their getaway.
The first killed was Barney Green, a grandfather in his 80s dressed in his best suit to mark Ireland making it to the World Cup.
I didn't know anyone in that pub. I didn't know Colm Smyth, who was there only because, like myself, he had spent most of the afternoon convincing his best friend's father to come to the pub to watch the match. His son was away working in England, so the deal was that Colm would buy him a pint for Father's Day.
At half-time, as elated as the rest of us, Colm bought another round, and then the thing that only ever happened on the news was happening in O’Toole’s bar.
Twenty-five years later he can still see the brilliant flashes of gun fire in the mirror behind the bar, the balaclavas on the faces of the gunmen. He can smell the acrid cordite, the blood pooling on the floor around him.
Shot four times, Colm is down, the weight of his friend’s father – dead – on top of him. Three, four bodies are in a heap next to him. They are all dead.
“Turn it off!” He cannot understand why the ref didn’t stop the match when the shooting started. Then he realises that the ref doesn’t know. The fans don’t know. The victorious Irish national team doesn’t know. The families of the dead and injured around him don’t know. But other people did. They knew what was happening and why.
As we reflect on the 25th anniversary of what happened that night, Colm wonders when those people will tell the truth.
No one has ever been charged. The UVF claimed responsibility for the attack, and abundant evidence exists that there was collusion with the RUC. In spite of two ombudsman's reports and work by investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney in the 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned, the truth remains elusive for everyone affected by what happened in Loughinisland.
The two journalists were arrested in 2018 over the alleged theft of confidential documents relating to the massacre – causing an outcry by Amnesty International, the National Union of Journalists and others that the PSNI had gone after the documentary makers instead of following up points made in the film.
Earlier this month the journalists were vindicated in court in Belfast, where the judge found they had acted properly, and ordered that the documents be returned to them.
But from the perspective of the victims those responsible for the suffering of so many families continue to get away with murder.
For Smyth the truth is all that matters, and he believes the only way to it is to continue the hard labour.
“We have to take the legal route, put ourselves in front of the media to keep things alive and in the memories of people so bit by bit all the little pieces of the jigsaw will come together.
“I want people to know and understand that our own government, our police force that was supposed to serve and protect us and catch the bad guys, that they were the bad guys, and they were trying to kill us.”
But why would the very people in positions designed to protect us from terrorists choose to protect those same terrorists and then years later vilify the journalists who figured it out?
“They collude because they can,” he tells me. What chance then did any of us have in Northern Ireland in those days?
Colm is motivated and positive. He wants only the truth, he says. It is the only path to reconciliation for the people of Northern Ireland, and these days he is feeling hopeful.
He believes that the attempts to undermine the facts and the truth, the unacceptable persecution of victims, are being whittled away by the truth-seekers – people like himself, the families, the documentarians and artists and journalists who are bringing stories about Loughinisland or the Miami Showband to global audiences and speaking truth to power.
He hopes that “all these things are coming together to create a tsunami that will force the government to admit to a systemic breach of service to its people” and deliver the truth.
Reminiscent of his friend, Miami Showband massacre survivor Stephen Travers, whose tireless campaign for justice and truth is driven by an understanding that "no community has a monopoly on suffering and loss," Colm stresses that there is no hierarchy of victims. Thus he struggles to find sense in the ongoing "whataboutery" and the continued fighting over celebrations of cultures.
Why, he wonders, did we allow religion to become such a dominant factor in Northern Ireland?
He wants people to know that thousands of families deal with pain and suffering on a daily basis – pain based only on the fact that “they lived in the wrong area or went to the wrong pub or were born into the wrong religion” .
Those who have inflicted such pain on innocent people gathered together simply to watch a football match, he is willing to forgive. He forgives the men who shot him and killed his friends, and says he has never known bitterness. Rather, what he has experienced over the years is a profound sense of loss and sadness, not just for himself and the victims, but “sadness for the guys who did this” .
He wonders what they did the morning after. What did they say to their kids around the breakfast table on Father’s Day? No father is going to tell his kids he went into a bar and killed six men just because they were Catholic, is he? asks Smyth.
Colm wants to talk to the alleged gunman named in the No Stone Unturned documentary as one of those responsible for the massacre, believing that “if I could just sit down and humanise him and he could humanise me, maybe we could see two individuals. Maybe he had his own personal traumas and acted out of retribution. Who knows? Maybe I could convince him to tell the truth. Maybe I could help him unburden himself. I would forgive him.”
A husband and father now, Colm Smyth is 48 and living in Cork, where he moved shortly after the massacre. He has no regrets about leaving the North; knowing there is no way he could contemplate raising his children there if even the tiniest chance of such a thing happening again exists.
Therefore, he finds it difficult to visit Northern Ireland. Even all these years later and in spite of a thriving tourism industry, Colm is startled by the reminders of sectarianism that are still on display in flags and painted curbs in the otherwise picturesque Game of Thrones country.
Driving around the beautiful Antrim coast on a family holiday, a tension he had almost forgotten revisits him, one familiar to people from Northern Ireland, an old anxiety as he wonders if the person sitting next to him in a restaurant might hate him simply because of his religion. Nobody cares about such things 300 miles away in Cork.
Some 25 years after Loughinsland, Colm still wrestles with survivor’s guilt. Quieter and more contemplative in this anniversary month, Colm knows his family will notice what has become an annual change in him, because every June, he tells me, the lights go down and “it is my own private horror movie, repeated continually in the little cinema at the back of my brain” .
In the dark he relives those harrowing moments when he wished fervently that at 10:15 on June 18th, 1994, there had been a fifth bullet to end the pain.
In that moment young Colm Smyth couldn’t have imagined he would six months later meet a wonderful woman with whom he would have two children. Lying in the blood on the floor in O’Toole’s pub, he couldn’t have imagined that what had just happened would consume him for the rest of his life.
I too am a child of the Troubles even though I was always, by nothing other than luck, in the right place at the right time. I knew the dull thunder-clap of a bomb, the tremble of my mother’s kitchen window in its wake, and the stench of days-old smoke from rubble that used to be a hotel, a supermarket, a pub.
Like Colm Smyth, I know how far we have come that Northern Ireland’s youngest football fans have never known a bomb scare, a security checkpoint on a country road, or a civilian search. And I know how far we must travel to recover from decades of sectarian tension, the multitude of lies, our wounds – physical and psychic.
May we not wait for another anniversary before acting. On the shore of history, may we demand the truth and, as our own poet Seamus Heaney insisted,
‘Hope for a great sea-change/
On the far side of revenge./
Believe that a further shore/
is reachable from here...’
* No Stone Unturned, Alex Gibney’s 2017 documentary on the Loughinisland massacre, will be screened on RTÉ One at 9.35pm on Wednesday, October 2nd