‘They removed a bullet from my face, my shoulder, my leg and my right hand’
Patricia Devlin reflects on the 1974 shooting that changed her life and killed her parents
Patricia Devlin aged 18
Patricia Devlin describes herself as a stubborn and resilient woman, strengths that served her and her three brothers well through their lives.
Patricia’s parents, James and Gertrude, were shot dead by members of the Glennane Gang in 1974.
They were murdered as they were driving up a country lane late at night to their home in Co Tyrone, their car riddled with bullets. A teenager, Patricia, sitting in the front passenger seat, was hit several times. She remembers the flashes, the bullets hitting her, and her surprise that the shots weren’t louder. She played dead and survived.
The Glennane Gang was an amalgam of Ulster Volunteer Force members who operated in Mid-Ulster in the early to mid-1970s in cooperation with some members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), which was part of the British army. Over that period they carried out more than 120 sectarian killings. The line from loyalist paramilitaries at the time was that they “were taking the war to the IRA” but of the 120 victims only one had IRA connections.
“It was essentially mass murder by degrees,” says Patricia Devlin. “Every single one of us, we were ordinary people, going about our business, living peaceful, productive lives. Not a single one of us was involved in anything illegal.”
Devlin minds her own privacy but she agreed to conduct this interview by phone from Canberra, where she now lives, partly prompted by the row over RTÉ’s broadcasting of the documentary Unquiet Graves about the Glennane Gang.
That controversy kicked off last year when Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris was critical of the showing of the film, complaining of lack of balance. It became a bigger wrangle when former minister for justice Charlie Flanagan wrote to RTÉ making similar criticisms.
“Well, my view is everyone in Ireland needs to see that documentary,” Patricia responds. “Everyone needs to see that there was collusion.”
The Glennane Gang operated in Armagh and Tyrone mostly but also in parts of Down and Derry, an area that was known as the “Murder Triangle”. It is also blamed for the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings in which 33 people and a full-term unborn baby were killed.
The group got its name from the farm owned by RUC Reserve member James Mitchell in Co Armagh where many of the gang, including one of the most notorious killers of the Troubles, Robin “the Jackal” Jackson, conspired and planned their killings.
The gang and their murders featured in many journalistic stories during the Troubles but it wasn’t until 2013 that the true extent of its operations was collated in a book, Lethal Allies, by Anne Cadwallader, a seasoned journalist and latterly a case worker at the human rights advocacy group, the Pat Finucane Centre.
What gave the work its forensic strength was that the details of the scores of Glennane Gang killings were largely based on declassified papers and official reports and on investigations carried out by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which itself was a division of the PSNI.
Even at the time of the murders in 1974 there were strong suspicions of members of the RUC and UDR working with the UVF in Mid-Ulster.
Despite those concerns, of which she would have been somewhat conscious at the time, Patricia herself became a police officer. One of the RUC detectives investigating the murders told her she had the aptitude for policing. She heeded that advice and, after a few “lost” years, joined West Yorkshire police in 1977 when she was 20. She was based in Leeds.
The Devlins were a middle-class family who lived in a fine home between Coalisland and Dungannon in Co Tyrone called Congo House, named after a local townland. Patricia’s grandfather bought the house and land around 1918 at the time of his marriage. Before that she thinks it was occupied by a clergyman and originally was built by someone who was connected to an old coalmine in the area. Her memories are of a very happy childhood.
In Lethal Allies, Patricia’s brother Eamon described childhood in Congo House as a “golden time”, saying: “We had dogs, cats and hens. We grew gooseberries and we had an apple orchard. There was a large chestnut tree close to the house. It was, in short, an idyllic country upbringing which ended forever that day in May.”
They got on well with their Protestant neighbours, and the farm that Patricia’s mother owned was rented out to a local Protestant farmer. Her father, James, co-owned a pub with his older brother John in Coalisland. Another older brother, Frank lived over the premises with John.
James was a “local hero”, having played as a tough-as-teak and skilful full back for Tyrone in the 1950s. His footballing exploits – including a narrow all-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway in 1956 – were recounted in The Irish Times by Keith Duggan in May 2014.
There were other sides to her father, Patricia recalls. “He was the smartest man that I ever came across. He was very much into poetry. He loved the performing arts. Every year he used to go to the Carrickmore drama festival. He was a lovely ballad singer, although I didn’t inherit his voice.”
He and Gertrude were well suited. She was the librarian in Coalisland, also with a love of the arts. “They used to appear together in light operas and shows like Die Fledermaus and Show Boat. Mummy was an incredibly funny, amusing, entertaining, lady. Again, very well read, very intellectual. She was very popular.”
Both were SDLP members, with Gertrude the more political. She was on the first civil rights march between Coalisland and Dungannon in August 1968, campaigning for an end to discrimination against Catholics. “She believed in social justice.”
They were a good example for the four Devlin children: Patricia the eldest, who was 17 at the time; Colm, 16; John, 14; and Eamon, 12.
“Their attitude was the more you read the more educated you became. Education was a big thing in our house.”
On the nights James was working in the pub in Coalisland, which was a few miles from Congo House, there was a routine where Gertrude would drive in to collect him. Patricia always went with her mother, sitting in the front seat. “I didn’t like the idea of her being out at that time of night. Maybe I had some sort of premonition – I don’t know.”
Tuesday, May 7th, 1974, “was a normal night”, says Patricia. They went into the pub, chatted to the two uncles for a while. She helped to clean up and then instructed, “C’mon Dad let’s get a move on”.
They drove off into the night, stopping briefly so her father could get fish and chips at a local takeaway, motoring the dark road to their home and up the lane to the house when, as Patricia recalled, “We saw what looked like a soldier standing in front of us”.
“He put up his hands to stop us.”
At first they thought it was some sort of British army checkpoint or patrol, or that something had happened in the area. They were a little apprehensive but not fearful.
“But next the shooting started.”
She can still hear and see the shattering window, the glass crashing in around her, the flashes, the shots that she thought should be louder.
“It just seemed to go on forever. I was hunkering up. I could actually feel the bullets hitting me. It didn’t hurt but I knew I’d been hit.
“And then the shooting finally stopped. Poor Mummy was screaming that she was dying. I could remember Daddy calling out in the back of the car that he had been shot.”
“I’ll get help,” he said, opening the back door of the car.
“And then the shooting started all over again. And it wasn’t as long. I just played dead, that’s all I could do. I remember thinking they are going to come and check that we are all dead.”
Eventually, Patricia decided she must go for assistance, staggering up the road to a neighbour’s house, worried that if any cars came along it might be the killer gang. The householder, a farmer, wanted to head down to the scene armed with his legally held shotgun, which had Patricia shouting at him not to go in case he too might be shot.
A doctor arrived, the police, ambulances; the younger boys asleep in the house had to be looked after. She was treated in the old South Tyrone hospital in Dungannon. She couldn’t attend her parents’ funeral but despite her injuries she organised it.
“They removed a bullet from my face, my neck – quite close to my jugular vein – my shoulder, my leg and my right hand . . . they were the main entry points.”
That was the last time they were in Congo House. The children were farmed out to different relations in the area. The house gradually became derelict through neglect, vandalism and time. Eventually the dilapidated house and farm was sold, a decision made by the older Devlin uncles and aunts.
Those senior Devlins also were hard hit by the murders. James’ older brothers, Frank and John never got over it. “Essentially it destroyed them. They were very close to Daddy. It aged them terribly. Uncle John adored Mummy and missed her friendly chat and kindness. Every time I had a conversation with him, the poor man, he would just break down in tears.”
Nothing much happened in terms of the investigation but then 15 months on there was a breakthrough when 20-year-old William Thomas Leonard, whom Patricia knew from the area as Billy, was arrested in connection with a bombing in Dungannon in August 1975. He also was asked about the Devlin murders and two days after his arrest he admitted his involvement.
On the night of the murders he picked up the two gunmen from his native village of Moygashel, in Co Tyrone, a loyalist town, one of them wearing what Leonard described as a British army uniform. He dropped them off at Congo House and waited in the car until the shooting started. When the deed was done he ferried them back to Moygashel.
Leonard told the police the names of the killers but, because he had not actually witnessed the shooting, it was decided they would not be charged. The North’s DPP also decided that Leonard would not be charged with the attempted murder of Patricia because he “did not know” she was in the car.
Leonard, a single, 20-year-old phone engineer, also was a member of the UDR. But this was not mentioned in the prosecution file, which Patricia finds extraordinary.
This was a recurring theme in quite a number of the Glennane Gang killings, as Cadwallader highlights in Lethal Allies. Cadwallader also notes how so many of the victims were Catholics doing relatively well or making their way up in the world, as if envy as well as sectarianism was a motive.
Patricia attended the court in Belfast where Leonard pleaded guilty. “I recognised him as being one of the lads you’d sort of see around Dungannon. I could see he was just three or four years older than me and I just felt so incredibly sorry for him. I really did. I felt like, you have just destroyed your life for a so-called ideology. At least I can walk out of here today. I can go on and do what I want to do for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years, and you’re going to be in jail.
“I could see he was actually distressed because he could see me. He was pathetic. He had someone with him who, it turned out, was a member of his extended family who was connected with the church.
“Of course I wasn’t allowed to go and speak to Billy. But I asked if I could speak to his friend, and I said to him, ‘Look, just tell him I don’t bear him any ill will’.”
Leonard was sentenced in December 1975 and released in August 1985. He became a born-again Christian.
“How can you hate someone? I can see some goodness in most people. Okay there are bad eggs out there, there are evil people out there. But what I would say is that he was one of the misguided ones.”
And of the two who got away? “Well, have they got away really? I know who they are and they know I know who they are.”
She believes that conscience somehow must affect people who carried out such acts. “It’s got to play in their minds at some point in the future, if it hasn’t already.”
As Cadwallader recounts in her book, one of the two suspects, a 25-year-old, denied involvement. However, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison on two explosives-related charges.
The HET was unable to pull up police documentation from the time on the second suspect, a 27-year-old farmer and part-time UDR member, even though three handguns, ammunition and two home-made bombs were found when his home was raided.
A third man Patricia is sure was central to organising the murders, although not directly involved, was Wesley Somerville, who also was from Moygashel. He and a UDR soldier were killed when a bomb they were planting in the Miami Showband’s van in July 1975 exploded prematurely. Three of the band were then gunned to death and two others wounded by the remaining members of the gang.
Somerville was viewed as a senior member of the Glennane group. There was ballistic testing capability in 1974 but it was not until tests more than 30 years later by the HET, which re-examined the Devlin murders, that it was discovered that a Sterling submachine gun used in the killings also was used in 10 other Glennane Gang murders, including the Miami Showband shootings.
This again was a recurring theme: of a number of guns being used in several murders, and all being linked back to the Glennane Gang.
Years after her parents’ murders Patricia saw the “so-called prosecution file” the RUC prepared for the DPP.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was appalled. I was actually embarrassed. I just thought, I’ve put together far better prosecution briefs for someone up for being drunk and disorderly. It was awful. And the two HET police officers who reviewed our case said it was actually one of the better files they came across.
“In the UK your number one duty as a police officer is protection of life and property and then the prevention and detection of crime, but they didn’t do any of it. They failed, they failed their own people.”
Here, Patricia is conscious of not being part of a narrative put forward by some republicans that paints every RUC officer or every British soldier with the same brush of collusion. “There were a lot of good RUC officers,” she says. But, she asks, why did the good ones not do more to expose the “corrupt, rotten ones”?
“I can remember when unscrupulous officers were discovered, when I was in the West Yorkshire police. I didn’t like that because that actually reflected on me and my integrity. You just can’t turn a blind eye to wrongdoing.”
Her puzzlement over the Unquiet Graves row also is prompted by the fact that no one really disputes the existence of the Glennane Gang, or how so many RUC and UDR members were tied up in its activities. Currently, the Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson, following complaints from the Devlins and numerous other families, is investigating if there was RUC misconduct in relation to the Glennane Gang murders.
The former chief constable of Bedfordshire police Jon Boutcher separately is conducting an over-arching criminal inquiry into the gang.
The HET reportedly had conducted 80 per cent of such an inquiry but in 2010 the then PSNI assistant chief constable Drew Harris, now the Garda Commissioner, under the then chief constable Matt Baggott, said that the HET instead must examine individual cases – a decision that infuriated many of the families.
This in turn led to a legal case, in which ultimately the courts overturned that decision. The PSNI was ordered to arrange an independent and over-arching investigation which again led to Jon Boutcher taking on the job.
These are major inquires and it could be quite some time before they are completed. That all should bring greater truth about the Glennane Gang.
Patricia Devlin says she has an obstinate streak, as have her three brothers. They were all ambitious and all did well in their careers. Patricia enjoyed the policing life and could have been expected to move up the ranks. That changed when she met her future husband John in England. He was Australian, and she headed to Canberra with him where she forged a successful career in the Australian criminal justice system.
Her brothers all work in England. John works in the construction industry, Colm is a legal editor and Eamon work for a non government agency.
The fact that none of them lives in Northern Ireland again may not be coincidental. They are all “resilient”, says Patricia: they weren’t going to let the horror of what was visited on them destroy them.
That comes from her parents, she is sure: her father, for a Tyrone full back was small in stature but a powerful footballer who took no prisoners; her mother a confident, determined woman. “We’ve always fought hard for independence, and that’s something that Mummy always taught us because she herself was a very independent woman.
“My parents did a pretty good job in putting good foundations in place and the same goes with the boys as well. We know what’s right, we know what’s wrong. And we know what the decent thing to do is.”
Equally, Patricia doesn’t undersell how difficult it was to establish and maintain that inner strength and discipline to live a good and useful life. For a couple of years after the murders of her parents she sort of emotionally drifted, “feeling lost”, she says, and not sure what to do. The decision to join the police putting her on a surer path.
“But I’m a very stubborn one,” says Patricia. “Nothing; nothing stops me. I could have rolled over, I could have thought ‘Oh yeah the world owes me a living’. But I brushed myself down, picked myself up and I said, ‘Right, I’ve got a life to live, and I have to live it because no one else can live that life for me’.”