Greysteel massacre, 25 years on: ‘The smell of gun smoke has never left me’
Witnesses recall the UDA attack on the Rising Sun bar that left eight people dead
The funeral of Greysteel massacre victim Steven Mullan passes the Rising Sun bar where the atrocity took place. Photograph: Pacemaker
On a Saturday night in October 1993 – the eve of Halloween – he and his partner had been dispatched to a report of a shooting in the Co Derry bar. When they arrived a crowd was waiting for them. “Their arms were waving in the air and they were shouting,” remembers McAuley. “They surrounded us, and the doors to the ambulance were opened, and we were pulled out and pushed inside.
“It was clear that people had been shot. There were people laid on the floor, laid across tables, slumped on chairs.
“The thing that struck me most when we went inside the door was the smell of gun smoke. It was just so pungent, it was almost like you could taste it. That has never left me.”
McAuley’s colleague began dressing wounds while he examined each patient, trying to establish who needed the most urgent treatment.
“I was trying to establish some form of priority in terms of who needed to be sent to hospital first, so I was walking through the bar and counting numbers, and I remember getting to the end of the bar and thinking there were eight or 10 casualties.
“Then somebody said to me, ‘what about the people round here?’ and I just couldn’t believe it. There was a wee snug bar where the gunmen had come in, and there were people there as well.”
Eight people died as a result of the UDA attack; 19 were injured. Four loyalists were later convicted of the murders, which had been carried out in revenge for the nine Protestants killed in the Shankill bombing the week before.
The Greysteel victims were both Catholic and Protestant – the youngest, 19-year-old Karen Thompson, died along with her boyfriend, 20-year-old Stephen Mullan; the oldest, James Moore, was the 81-year-old father of the bar’s owner.
‘Trick or treat’
Survivor Lorraine Murray recalled in a 2016 oral history project how the gunmen had come into the bar behind her.
“One of them shouted ‘trick or treat’, and a young girl said to him ‘that isn’t even funny’, and he just shot her where she sat.
“The shooting seemed to go on forever… we just dived under the table and I lay with my hands over my head. I thought if I lay as if I was dead they would believe it. Cartridges were falling on the floor from the gunman beside me.”
Former police officer Norman Hamill – who lived nearby – was one of the first inside the bar after the shooting. He would later realise he knew some of the wounded.
“It was an absolutely horrific scene. There were dead and dying people, and some of those images have stayed with me.”
As local curate Fr Stephen Kearney arrived at the bar, the parish priest was emerging. “There was blood, real blood on his hands from all the people he had anointed who were bleeding.”
He pauses. “It’s not easy talking about it.”
Greysteel showed that violence was leading to enormous pain for both communities
Inside the bar, Hamill recalls there was “enormous confusion”.
“One very distinct memory I have is of telling people I was a police officer, and that I wanted to ring the police headquarters and tell them what had happened and people handing me out handfuls of change.”
Later, as the police’s press officer at the scene, he successfully argued that the media should be allowed inside the bar.
“I said I had to have a pool of press in to see the bloodstained scene inside, and that took quite a bit of negotiation with the forensic people but we managed to get them in,” says Hamill.
The images – of couches with bullet holes ringed in chalk, of pools of blood on the floor, of a discarded shoe – were widely shown; they helped, Hamill believes, to demonstrate the extent to which both communities were suffering because of the violence.
“The visual image helped bring it home to people, because so often scenes of crime are sanitised by a cordon and a white tape and no one gets inside that.
“It [Greysteel] showed in a way that other atrocities hadn’t done that violence was leading to enormous pain for both communities, and it really reinforced the idea that it was no longer worth it. I do think Greysteel was more of a turning point than any other incident.”
Another turning point came with the funerals. The SDLP leader John Hume broke down as the daughter of one of the victims told him they had prayed around her father’s coffin that Hume’s efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland would be successful.
Hume was already in talks with the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams; the following month the then taoiseach Albert Reynolds and the British prime minister John Major issued the Downing Street Declaration, which helped pave the way for political talks; the year after the IRA and then loyalist paramilitaries announced a ceasefire.
I believe that it would be possible to slip back into that violence
As early as the day after the shootings Fr Kearney remembered the haze that had descended over the village.
“It was a Sunday morning, and I have a memory of standing watching people coming into Mass and everyone looked grey, no matter what colour they were wearing, everything was grey. I was in a sort of haze myself, and it was like there was a real physical fog around all of us.
“I had been chaplain to Altnagelvin [hospital] and I saw 13 bodies laid out in the morgue after Bloody Sunday, but somehow Greysteel made far more of an impact on me personally.
“But one of the comforting things from my point of view was that people were coming together in groups and going into Mass together. Already there was that bond between them, and that’s a bond that’s still there, still real.”
Today, 25 years on, Greysteel remains much as it was back then – a small, quiet village on the main road from Derry to the north coast, where most people choose not to talk about the atrocity.
“Nobody really says a wild lot, because of the sensitivities around it,” says one man.
“All the positive things we do here could be portrayed in the media at any time of year, not just at Halloween,” says another. “I wouldn’t like to come across wrong, like I was looking for publicity.”
This year among those positives will be a number of events marking Halloween – the first time it has been celebrated in the village in 25 years.
The Rising Sun remains open. There is no sign above the door, but everyone knows where it is.
For many years Adrian McAuley avoided looking at the bar when he drove past on the main road.
“I can look at it now, but I’ve never been in the bar since that night, and I’ve no wish to go into it either for that matter.
“Obviously things are a whole lot better now, but you just wonder how we ever came out of it all with any sort of sanity. We could never go back to those days, and so it’s important that no matter what difficulties we have in Northern Ireland, the first approach should always be talking as opposed to violence.”
Norman Hamill agrees – but says that the implications of Brexit have given rise to fresh concerns.
“We’re definitely enormously better off than we were in those times, but there is a danger of people who didn’t suffer in the violence being blasé about it, and I believe that it would be possible to slip back.
“I think we won’t slip back quickly, but it could slip back, and people need to be mindful of that
“Brexit provides a dangerous moment for the peace process – a dangerous development maybe more than a moment – and I think some people are unrealistic about the potential of that to be a very bad influence on the North.”