The occasion is enshrined by the full-time score rather than the date: "Ireland 1, Italy 0" has the power to send a generation of Irish people back to an afternoon 20 years ago, when the national soccer team somehow beat the Italians in the now-razed Giants Stadium, in New Jersey. The year 1994 was a transformative one for Ireland, the summer melodrama of the World Cup team coming between the Riverdance debut and the ceasefire in Northern Ireland.
But before the players made it back to the airport, for a night flight to Orlando, word began to filter through that something unutterably dark had taken place in a secluded village in Co Down, that men had been killed as they watched that match. And soon the village's name became a byword for one of the unfathomable evils of the Troubles: Loughinisland.
It’s a balmy Saturday in early June as we sit in the room where the murders took place. “I think that match was the word on everyone’s lips,” says Claire Rogan, whose husband, Adrian, was killed that night. “We were just back from holidays in Spain that morning, and even before we went the whole thought was, Would we get back? We met people from Donegal over there, and the whole banter was about if we would be cheering the team on Saturday night.”
About an hour of the match had passed when two men wearing boiler suits and balaclavas walked into the Heights Bar, shouted “Fenian bastards” and opened fire with AK-47 rifles. Fifteen men were in the bar. When the gunmen left by car, six of the men lay either dead or dying. Five others were injured.
As it happened, all six dead men – Rogan, who was 34; 87-year-old Barney Green; Green’s 54-year-old nephew, Dan McCreanor; Malcom Jenkinson, who was also 54; Patsy O’Hare, who was 35; and 39-year-old Eamon Byrne – were Catholic. That was a fluke; the Heights had always been a mixed bar.
Because Loughinisland is off the beaten track, tucked a kilometre or so from the main road from Belfast to Newcastle – “Blink and you miss it,” as Claire’s daughter Emma put its – sectarian bitterness had never afflicted the village. Until that evening Loughinisland people considered the atrocities that had gripped the North as tragedies that always happened elsewhere.
“Untouched. It really was,” says Aidan O’Toole, whose family owns the bar and who was serving behind the counter on the night of the murders. “There was never no trouble around here. It was a mixed community . . . It was a farming community, and the two big conversations were about farming and Gaelic football. Protestants and Catholics got on well, always did. There are Protestants drinking in here right now today. There were Protestants in that day . . . It was just a Catholic-owned bar and an easy target.”
After the massacre the O’Toole family converted what had been the lounge into the main bar; a simple plaque bearing the photographs and names of the six victims was erected in the old bar. The counter where Barney Green, the oldest victim, liked to sit has been removed, but the beige- tiled mantelpiece remains, and there is a pool table at the back of the room.
For weeks after the funeral the O’Tooles wondered if they would ever reopen the bar. “My da was just . . . devastated,” Aidan says. “He didn’t want to.”
But the Heights was more than just the local pub: it was the natural meeting point of the community. The local priest visited the O’Tooles and gently urged them to open its doors again.
Claire Rogan looks back through the haze of the first two years after Adrian’s death and reckons she functioned through constant low-grade shock. Somehow she turned up for work. Somehow she put meals on the table for her girls. Some nights they would gather in the Heights, family and friends of the victims, and they would sing. “Like letting off steam,” she says. “Probably for outsiders looking in, it was strange. But it was a way of releasing tension for us. But this bar had to open again. Otherwise our community would have gone for ever.”
Although the murders themselves will be 20 years old next Wednesday, their consequences are refreshed every day. When Aidan O’Toole closes his eyes he can recall every second of that evening: the commentary and the laughter and the slow-motion seconds of the shootings. “It is like yesterday to me. You try not to let it beat you. I had to raise my children and go to work, but part of you can’t move on. It is just there.”
Adrian Rogan had gone down to the Heights on June 18th, 1994, to collect a pair of tickets for an Ulster championship match. Down were playing on Sunday. The tickets were returned to Claire with his belongings afterwards. She herself arrived minutes after the shooting.
“My father-in-law was in the house, so I went down. One of the first men there says, ‘Claire, don’t go in. We need a clergyman. There’s been a shooting.’ And I thought some of the boys had been out shooting rabbits and the gun had gone off. That was what went through my mind.”
Emma Rogan, who was eight, processed the days before and after the murders through a child’s eyes. She has clear recollections of learning to swim in Spain and then of seeing all the relatives visiting their house and everyone red-eyed.
“I remember Uncle Sean being there, and wearing a big black coat, and thinking, Why is he wearing a big winter coat in June? And I remember Uncle Ciaran. Big man . . . but he’s crying. What’s he crying for? Men don’t cry.”
For years the families of the six victims and the general community of Loughinisland tried to make the best of life and waited, trustingly, for something to come of police investigations. A senior RUC officer had assured Claire that “no stone would be left unturned”.
A dozen people were arrested and questioned, but no charges were brought. By the 10th anniversary the relatives were aware that nothing was ever going to come of the investigations. Tentatively they began making phone calls and asking awkward questions. “We were praised for maintaining a dignified silence,” Claire says. “Then the penny dropped. That suited a political agenda.”
Emma, now a young woman, became a quietly determined advocate for justice for her father and the other men. They hired a solicitor, met at the Heights, exchanged information. What they found appalled them: few of those arrested had been sufficiently tested for samples or DNA swabs. The car used in the murders, a Triumph Acclaim, had been discovered the day after the shootings. It sat for years in a police yard; the family later discovered it had been sent to a scrapyard to be crushed, as it had been taking up too much space.
They found enough inconsistencies in the police reports to convince them of some kind of collusion between the loyalist paramilitaries and the police. They complained to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Al Hutchinson; the subsequent report was so widely condemned that Hutchinson agreed to step down from his post.
The families have travelled in delegations to Westminster and Washington. They started civil proceedings against the British ministry of defence in 2012 and are still pushing for answers. It's a subject tackled in Ceasefire Massacre, a new documentary by the Oscar-winnng film-maker Alex Gibney.
The few seconds of violence has taken 20 years, and counting, to make sense of. Sometimes Claire Rogan senses what others think: that they are torturing themselves and that it would be emotionally healthier to move on.
They all know Northern Ireland is a better place now: the Rogans think nothing of whizzing up to Belfast to see a show at the Waterfront or to shop on Sunday. “When Adrian and I were going out you wouldn’t dream of that. Belfast was like Beirut.” But they also feel they cannot quit. Claire’s grandson is nine and is asking why, if his great grandaddy is alive, his grandaddy isn’t.
The UVF claimed responsibility for the June 18th atrocity. On September 1st, 1994, the IRA proclaimed a ceasefire, and six weeks later loyalist paramilitaries declared a ceasefire of their own.
The killers failed to bring sectarianism into Loughinisland. At the wake, Protestant neighbours asked Claire if it was all right to come in. They were apprehensive. She welcomed them. “They were disgusted. They told us it wasn’t done in their name. And, if anything, it has made us tighter.”
Aidan’s father is serving behind the bar this afternoon. A group of men are sipping slow pints, and there is racing on the television. Outside it is ice-cream-cone weather.
Aidan has to race off to coach his under-12 Gaelic football team. He smiles when he shakes hands and says good luck. Sometimes he feels eaten with guilt about what happened. He knows he was as helpless as any of them, but he was the barman, the custodian. He still has a bullet in his liver.
They still chat sports and farming at the Heights, but the World Cup and its festival of matches sharpen old feelings.
Claire Rogan hesitates when asked if it is difficult to hear once again the sounds of the commentators and the fans and see the pictures of faraway stadiums. “It brings you back. It’s almost a sense of . . . I don’t really think about that.”
As the Rogans leave to stand for the photograph that accompanies this story, one of the local men drinking in the bar stops by the memorial plaque on his way in from having a smoke. He points to one of the faces smiling back at him. “I held that man in my arms when he was dying,” he says with anger. “That was 20 years ago, and we are all still suffering for it here.”