The shooting sounded ‘like pebbles tinkling off a window pane’
Thirty-five years ago, Republican gunmen massacred worshippers at a church in Darkley, Co Armagh
Pastor David Bell of Mountain Lodge Pentecostal Church who survived the Darkley massacre. “We have peace and comfort knowing that those who died were in right standing and are in God’s presence now.” Photograph: Liam McBurney
“The date was May 1st 1968,” he says. “That was my moment – a singular moment for me.”
Bell was just 10 years old at the time but that moment, at an evening meeting of song celebrating God’s message and Bible stories hosted by the Child Evangelical Fellowship, had an immediate and lasting impact on his life.
Over the following days, he told his school pals what had happened and how: “I discovered I could speak to God through prayer and, as I read the scriptures, God could speak to me”.
In time, this son of a Presbyterian farming family from Aughnacloy in Co Tyrone, became a confirmed adherent of Pentecostalism, which emphasises rebirth, Bible study and the celebration of faith, through prayer and song, with like-minded believers. By his twenties, Bell was a regular worshipper at Mountain Lodge Church, where he helped with the services and had developed strong friendships.
We are sitting in a small room off the side of the modern church built in 1990. Through a window behind Pastor Bell, I can see the wooden Assembly Hall that used to be the place of worship for this small evangelical community. It was there, on Sunday, November 20th 1983, that the world got a horrible glimpse of just how bad things were in Northern Ireland.
All was as usual that November Sunday. The morning breaking of bread service took place in the little church hall as it always did. Afterwards, David Bell drove his small blue Daihatsu car to the other side of Keady, to David and Doreen Wilson’s farm for midday dinner.
David Bell loved this weekly encounter with the Wilsons. The meal was followed by dessert and coffee. By 6pm, Bell was back at the cedar-clad Pentecostal church hall, preparing it for the evening’s worship, which he always tape recorded.
At around the same time from the south, a vehicle was making its way towards the church. Inside it were three, possibly four, people, armed with automatic weapons. Three gunmen and a driver, it is thought.
By the time they were outside the church, about 65 people, including 20 children, were inside.
The singing was in full flow, Bell wrote later. The pastor Bobby Bain, son of a local farmer, was leading the congregation. They sang the hymn Are You Washed in the Blood? And as they began the final verse, Lay aside the garments that are stained by sin, the shooting began.
It was like the sound of pebbles tinkling off a window pane, those present said later. The bullets that hit Harold Browne and Victor Cunningham at the door struck them at point blank range and they died instantly.
David Wilson, Bell’s spiritual mentor and friend, burst through the porch door and into the packed hall, blood streaming from his face. Still able to speak, however, he shouted at everyone to take cover, get down under the benches, before collapsing by the emergency exit and dying.
The gunmen carried on, firing into the hall before stopping, apparently to reload their guns and, from the outside, spraying the side of the wooden hall.
In all, they fired about 70 bullets, 25 of them after reloading.
Inside, William Whyte took five bullets in his lower abdomen. A bullet grazed the flesh protecting his wife’s spine, another passed through the trouser leg of their 18-month old son.
Bobby and Muriel Herron were both hit in their legs.
Sally Bain, Pastor’s Bain’s daughter, had her right elbow shot off, the bullet then hitting her thigh.
Edith Kenny was wounded in her cheek.
Nigel Whyte took a bullet to his leg; his girlfriend Cathy injured the bridge of her nose and required reconstruction surgery.
David Bell’s tape recording captured the sound of the shooting. Just 47 seconds long, it makes for uncomfortable listening. The snapping sound of gunfire, the cracking and thudding noises of the weapons being discharged and of bullets hitting home indicate that several guns were used.
Behind the sound of firing, screams can be heard.
At least one of the weapons was later traced to Dominic McGlinchey, a notorious terrorist with the Irish National Liberation Army, the military wing of the Irish Republican Socialist Party. The atrocity – accurately termed a massacre by David Bell – was claimed by a flag of convenience organisation, the non-existent Catholic Reaction Force.
McGlinchey later admitted that he provided the guns, claimed not to have been otherwise involved and said he condemned the attack.
It is hard to see God in the murder and shooting of people worshipping, but David Bell sees Him clearly in all that happened afterwards.
No one thought that William Whyte would live but he did. The profuse bleeding from his stomach stopped as Pastor Bain prayed over him.
Sally Bain, then David Bell’s unannounced girlfriend, regained virtually full function of her right arm even though, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, doctors considered amputation.She and Bell later married and have a grown-up daughter.
“We see God in the aftermath of what happened,” explains Bell, who succeeded Bob Bain as pastor in 1994.
Immediately after the killings, Pastor Bain and others in the church said there should be no retaliation – a view also expressed by mainstream church leaders and politicians, north, south and in Britain.
Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich denounced the attack in strident terms and the entire local community around Keady and Darkley, which is perhaps 90 per cent Roman Catholic, wrapped itself around the church congregation in sympathy.
“The sense of abhorrence of the local people at what happened, both within the Protestant community and the Catholic community, was very powerful,” says Pastor Bell.
At the time, the Mountain Lodge Pentecostal fellowship was about 30 strong at its core. Today, that has grown to around 65, some of the new members coming from south of the border, some from Catholic backgrounds.
A new church was built in 1990. A block and concrete structure, it has a large assembly hall for worship, several smaller meeting rooms and a kitchen.
Unseen under the assembly hall, there’s a small heated pool for total immersion baptisms (meaning reborn faith is no longer tested in the chilly waters of nearby Lough Aughnagurgan).
There are signs everywhere of normal family and parish activity, and the terrible event of 1983 is remembered in a wall-mounted memorial tablet inside the church door. Harold Browne, Victor Cunningham and David Wilson “who were killed by terrorists”, it says, adding “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ” (Romans 8.35).
If the murderers came to Mountain Lodge Church today, repenting of their sins and seeking forgiveness, Pastor Bell would welcome them openly.
“You never want such an experience but after it, you are able to empathise, to weep with those who weep and mourn with those that mourn,” he says.
“We are more about life than death. We have peace and comfort knowing that those who died were in right standing and are in God’s presence now.”
It is 35 years this month since the massacre. Strong cross-community bonds have been built, notably through the primary school in Darkley, which is almost entirely Catholic in make-up. Pastor Bell says that as a Christian church, their doors are open to everyone.
The spirit behind that sentiment is still not shared universally. The recording of the shooting may be heard on YouTube (search for Darkley Shootings 21 November 1983). In a comment, posted just four months ago, an anonymous writer using the moniker “Saoirse Go Deo 1986”, wrote the following:
“Completely justified. . .
“It was in response to members of that congregation of foreigners launching sectarian attacks against random Catholics. These people need to remember that their [sic] in Ireland not England and that if you want to attempt to ethnically cleanse the native population, then the same treatment should be expected back. Beir Bua!”
None of the people in Mountain Lodge Church were involved in any such activities and none were connected to any of the security forces. All were born, raised and were living in the locality or close by.
Saoirse Go Deo (Irish for Freedom For Ever) is a slogan favoured by the INLA/ IRSP, and is used on commmeorative posters, badges and stickers associated with the organisation and dead members of the McGlinchey family.
Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the Darkley Church may be ordered from Pastor David Bell, 123 Crosskeys Road, Armagh, BT60 3LD, Northern Ireland, or online from mlpc.co.uk; paperback £9.99, hardback £13.99