Columba McVeigh: A lost life brought into sharper focus
Oliver McVeigh still searching for truth about his brother 43 years after he ‘disappeared’
Oliver McVeigh holding the Sam Maguire with Peter Canavan in the changing rooms at Croke Park after Tyrone’s first All-Ireland win in 2003. Photograph: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
“The GAA,” Oliver McVeigh says finally, “has been my solace.”
It’s a fine May morning at Quinn’s Corner, a large family restaurant not far from Donaghmore on the old Belfast road and, on Sunday, a natural gathering point for the crowds heading to the big championship derby between Monaghan and Tyrone. Oliver will be somewhere in the crowd, his cameras slung over his shoulder.
He has become part of the furniture of Ulster championship days. He has the snapper’s gift for linking names and faces and the easy, unobtrusive way of capturing images without anyone paying much heed. He is fastidious about his match day habits and likes to be at the ground three hours before the game starts. “Just to chat to people. You might hear something about who’s going to be at the game.”
He enjoys the anticipation of the day building and the give and take of the chat. If Tyrone are playing, the crack’s always flying. Everyone knows Ollie is Donaghmore. Everyone knows he’s only half joking when he mentions Peter Canavan by referring to him as ‘God’. Most weeks, though, people will find a moment to ask after Columba. In Ballybofey a week ago, he must have had half a dozen people come up to him and just discreetly ask. Any news? Any word? It is heartening to know that people remember.
Sometimes he will see the politicians from Sinn Fein and the other parties sitting in the reserved seating of the stands and he’ll feel a surge of resentment. Sometimes he finds himself training his lens until they are out of shot on those blazing days when the Anglo-Celt is being hoisted. He would meet the same politicians at functions he was covering and sometimes they’d sidle up with consoling words, saying, beneath the tinkling of china: look, it’s terrible.
“And I’d give them a sharp answer. I won’t beat about the bush. My mother brought me up that way. I’d say: ‘Aye, it is and no thanks to youse boys’”. And sometimes the words would be saltier. He’s conflicted because he knows that most people would like Columba found. But it feels to him that if the McVeigh family stopped campaigning and searching that the matter could easily be left to one side
“Don’t get me wrong. It is not that people aren’t putting the word out. But it’s a bit like the GAA running the Lory Meagher Cup! They are concerned surely. But how concerned are they? And that is where I have the problem. Columba is way down the list of priorities.”
Oliver was 10-years-old when the McVeighs moved to Donaghmore, a village a few miles drive from Dungannon built on the river Torrent. He was the youngest in the house after Eugene, Dympna and Columba, who was six years older than him. In the 1970s, he remembers that as children that they were conscious of the Troubles but that the bad stuff always used to happen elsewhere, out of sight.
“A shooting down a country road. The odd explosion would be heard about.” Army patrols were a regular presence on the estate. Dusty, an Irish Red Setter belonging to the McVeighs, used to go berserk when she saw the soldiers. “Whether it was the uniform or the guns, I don’t know.” Columba ran in his own circle of teenagers and after 40 years, Oliver has few vivid memories.
“I don’t remember him an awful lot. Like, I do but I don’t. He was very happy go lucky. Typical teenager I suppose. Back then, 17-year-olds got up to stupid things . . . they were kind of innocent. He could be a wee bit daft and wasn’t always the sharpest cookie. He had a big heart. He and me mother got on like a house on fire. Very close. He’d give you the bite out of his mouth.”
One of the outstanding moments he does keep is of wandering up to the pitch to see a GAA match in which Columba was playing for Donoghmore reserves. “He was doing goals.”
Not too long after that, the McVeighs world was turned on its head. The house was raided by the British Army in the very early morning. “Every one of us out and treated like criminals and herded like cattle into a corner. They searched the place high and low.” A short time later, Columba was picked up and in the barracks, he was informed that bullets had been found in a cigarette packet in the house.
“They could have belonged to my Da! Or to our Dympna. But they never even asked: they just focussed on Columba.” Years later, the family would learn that Columba had been selected by an intelligence unit. The plan was to set him up and then try and obtain information about IRA escape routes into the south. Oliver was only a youngster but he knew the situation was grave.
In the house, the family solicitor would keep asking: “’Is there something you’re not telling us. Columba? Because this is unusual.’” He was charged with possession in the Special Court - but not with membership of the Provisional IRA. Nonetheless, he was sent to the Provisional wing of the Crumlin Road prison. “And just like that, he was totally isolated. The specials wanted to get information from him. But Columba wouldn’t have had any information. He couldn’t have held his water. Like, he might have known things that you’d hear around the town. But that was it.
“I used to go down with my mother on the bus to see him in prison every Saturday. It was a daunting task to go into Belfast for a woman who’d never be out of the town much. And often, he’d be black and blue with bruises. He never told us who did it: he’d say it was the screws. But I had it confirmed by an internal source that the Provos would beat him up because they smelt a rat. Because Columba wasn’t involved with anybody. He might have been with people who were. But that was it. And at that time, who would believe that the security forces were trying to infiltrate him? So they used to just beat him up. And because he knew nothing, he used to give fictitious names just to stop being beaten up in prison. So he was caught in no man’s land. I always say: the British State set him up and the Provos finished him off. Nobody would give him a helping hand.”
When Columba McVeigh was released from prison and moved back home to Donoghmore, he was an object of suspicion for both security and Provisional interests. On the ground security forces believed the ammunition find genuine. They presumed him to be involved with an IRA unit and subjected him to habitual interrogation and harassment. But local Provisionals knew that he didn’t belong to them and suspected him of being an informer. It became intolerable. Vera McVeigh told her son he should move to Dublin. Eugene was working as a cameraman down there. So he left and found a flat near Rathmines and had a girlfriend and seemed to be finding his feet when just like that, he vanished in November, 1975.
Communications were more haphazard then. There was no telephone in the McVeigh house in 1975. Letters were the most common means of staying in touch or, even more often, word of mouth. It took a while for them to absorb the fact that Columba was gone-gone. And even then, they tried to believe that it was of his own volition. They thought that he had just become tired of it all and had moved to England, or America even.
How do you even become a photographer in 1970s Tyrone? Oliver isn’t sure. It just happened. There was a dark room in St Patrick’s and he got lessons through art class. Eugene had started as a news photographer before becoming a television cameraman. Oliver followed suit and after school he got work with the Tyrone Democrat. He covered his first All-Ireland final in 1979 but he wasn’t a ‘proper’ photographer then: he was, he says, “like one of those boys who cadge their way in to take photos.” But he loved it.
He was a sports fanatic: Manchester United and the Tyrone football team were his idols. He went freelance and started to do the Ulster championship for the Irish Press. Sundays were insane. He had to get from Clones or Omagh or wherever the game was on to Portadown train station in time for the 5.45pm to Dublin. He’d find someone he knew - and sometimes someone he didn’t - and cajole them to leave the package of two rolls of film in the North Star hotel opposite Connolly station. They’d be collected from someone from the Press. The digital age has removed all that human endeavour and stress. If the job is less dramatic now, then the photos are better. “Of course they are. Five frames a second.”
Over the years, he got calls to cover the daily news events that stalked the North. The shootings and the bombings and the carnage. His days began by listening to the local news at 6.30 in the morning. More often than not it announced the details of the latest atrocity. A short while later, the phone would ring from a newspaper desk in Belfast or Dublin or London. He saw some grim sights, but because the job meant you were in a perpetual race - against other photographers, deadlines, train times - he became kind of detached from it all. He became accomplished at getting “collects”: the photographs of the victims “collected” from the families.
“I had to physically go to the door of a sister or a relative. If you approach people the right way and tell them you are trying to get a nice picture of the papers and they’d hunt for a few pictures for you. And you would copy it and send up a few nice copies for them to keep.” In the trade, collects were valuable. He learned that early.
For well over a decade, he moved through those extreme worlds of paramilitary violence and death and the escapism of photographing Gaelic games. He was behind the goal when Kevin McCabe, a Donaghmore clubmate, teed up the ball for his penalty in the 1986 All-Ireland final against Kerry, when Tyrone were seven points up: a fabulousness that could not and did not last. Oliver had his camera ready and couldn’t believe what was happening. Then the shot skated over the bar.
“And at that moment you became a photographer again.” He was in the Derry dressing room after the Ulster final deluge of 1993, which was played on a day of torrential rain. “The pitch was like a paddy field,” he marvels. Supporters slipped on the hill; all were saturated, caked in mud. “Joe Brolly took some boy from Dungiven in. He was covered head to toe. Brolly made him take a shower.” He was in the dressing room for the coveted moments of all three Tyrone All-Ireland wins. Even now, he has this kind of magical access to most dressing rooms because they know him, they trust him; he is part of the scene.
On Palm Sunday, 1999, Oliver and the family were returning from morning mass and straight away he noticed a car parked in the cul-de-sac. He was meant to be heading off to cover a league match: he can’t remember which one. He knew something was off and as soon as they were in the house, a knock came on the door. It was someone he knew to be associated with the Republican movement.
“He was one of the monkeys sent around to read the statement.” He knew in his heart then anyhow. A few years earlier he picked up a copy of Martin Dillon’s book, The Dirty War, and flicked to the index. There was his brother’s name and on the relevant page a claim that he had been abducted, killed and secretly buried. Now somebody was confirming this as he stood on his front door step. “I ran him. And I went into the house and the girls were there. And I didn’t say anything because I was preparing myself for the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in me life: tell my mother.”
Through all those years, Vera McVeigh had kept up the hope that her son had found some alternative, better life. Their father was a reserved man who kept his own counsel; privately, he may have feared a bleaker outcome. But Mrs McVeigh would say that Columba would land back some day with a car load of grand children. Now, she knew he wouldn’t.
In the days afterwards, the photograph of Columba, wearing an incongruously jaunty boating hat and bow tie as part of a cabaret act in the local youth club was everywhere in the papers. He was one of the 16 named as having been disappeared by the Republican paramilitaries, for reasons either obscure or non-existent. In the painstaking and devastating digs and searches in the years afterwards, all but three of the victims’ remains were located: Joe Lynskey, Robert Nairac and Columba McVeigh. The McVeigh family has waited through four digs, concentrated now on the Bragan Bog, on the Monaghan-Tyrone border.
They know they are close but are certain, too, that there are a few people who could furnish them with the co-ordinates that might make a difference. It’s vast, lonely terrain up there. A few metres could make all the difference. They know now that’s where Columba was finally taken, that winter, after being abducted in Dublin and taken to a house in Monaghan.
The bastards didn’t even have the balls to tell me to my face
“And tortured,” Oliver shrugs. “Whatever. I don’t know. The local lads would have befriended him in Dublin to abduct him and pass him over. My theory on all of the disappeared is: he knew something and he had to be shut up. It was all to protect informers at a higher level. If they had truly thought our Columba was an informer, they could have shot him and threw him on the border. But they couldn’t do that.”
Oliver has been up to Bragan Bog many times. He took Martin McGuinness up there about four years ago, when he was First Minister. He believes that that McGuinness did what he could when he could. He believes, too, that finding Columba wasn’t ever the highest priority of anyone involved in running the Northern Irish state. “I was communicating with him up until a week before he died. He was trying to help. But he was a very busy man.” His mother died in 2007 without finding her son. Oliver always remembers her words that day he called around to tell her what had had really happened. She said: “The bastards didn’t even have the balls to tell me to my face.”
Even on the most electrifying Ulster championship days, the Amhran na bhFiann has never stirred him. And he can’t see the tricolour without associating with the provisional movement. He says he’s a Republican in that he’d love to see a united Ireland. “But not if it means one drop of blood being shed.” Every so often he’d bump into a retired chief-Super stationed in Monaghan who volunteers as a steward at GAA games. He used to be up at the search site in Bragan Bog and was always brilliant to Mrs McVeigh. And seeing his face gives Oliver a warm feeling. It was the thing he always liked about the GAA: it was and is crowded with people involved in something for all the right reasons.
In 2010, Oliver went to pay his last respects to Charlie Armstrong, a Crossmaglen father of five who had disappeared in 1975 for reasons nobody locally could fathom and was found in bogland by the Commission for the Location of Victims Remains. At the church, many of the Crossmaglen Rangers players were stewarding and the clubhouse was used for a meal afterwards.
“And it made my heart proud to think that the GAA has started to recognise the disappeared and their families, even though it was local. There are so many good people in the GAA. The people in Crossmaglen took that decision as a club. Like Columba was a GAA person. Not in a huge way, maybe, but he was. And I’m a GAA person and as organisation, I suppose I would hope that they lend their massive reach and give this search a wee push. Part of the problem is that they may not know what to do. I’m not knocking the GAA. I’m asking to get their help. It’s just minute pieces of information. We are very close. But we’re still a million mile away too.”
At four o’clock on Sunday, an intensity of interest and energy will pulse from the field in Healy Park across mid-Ulster. The match is not on television: it will mark a return to the radio days of the 1970s and 1980s. Tyrone and Monaghan are provincial heavyweights and Gaelic football is a second language in both counties. Oliver is easier about wins and losses for Tyrone now: he has observed from the behind the lens as his county saw the glory three times: he is sated. “I am probably just more of a Gael at this stage,” he confesses. He will meet plenty of old faces in Omagh who will see him and think of Columba up there in the patch of scrub on the border of both counties. Some will ask. Some won’t need to.
“It is in my head every day. Not that much some days but then when I see people it comes into my head a lot. I keep saying that one day I want to walk behind Columba in Donaghmore. And that will be a glorious day. It is maybe strange to say that but I made that promise to my mother. And that’s all we want.”
Meantime, you’ll see him if you are there, around Healy Park, maybe on the sideline or around the burger vans, chatting people and joking as he lines up the lens with that practiced eye and waits for that moment when they look like they don’t have a care in the world.