Ghosts of a forgotten massacre

By Suzanne Breen (for the Sunday Tribune)

Her injuries were so horrific that it was only on the third attempt that Joan Connolly’s husband was able to identify her in the morgue. Half her face was blown away by the gunfire. But when he looked closely, Denis could see the red hair that his wife had always been so proud of.

Joan Connolly, a mother of eight, was shot dead by British paratroopers in west Belfast as she went to help a wounded man. She wasn’t the only innocent victim. Over three days in August 1971 in Ballymurphy, the paras killed 11 unarmed civilians, including a Catholic priest.

It was Belfast’s Bloody Sunday. But while the murders which followed six months later in Derry made international headlines, Ballymurphy has remained the forgotten massacre. The bereaved and injured have been ignored. There has been no #200m inquiry or prime ministerial apology.

While Bloody Sunday has been the subject of countless award-winning documentaries and two films, not even local broadcasters have made a programme about Ballymurphy. As in Derry, a cover-up was initiated. The British Ministry of Defence claimed those killed were armed. The soldiers’ shooting spree left 54 children without parents.

“The truth must now be told,” says Joan Connolly’s daughter Briege Voyle. “These terrible events have remained in the shadows for far too long. It was 1 Para - the exact same regiment which would later murder 14 people in Derry - which went on the rampage in Ballymurphy. Had they been held to account for what they did to us, Bloody Sunday would not have happened.”

After internment was introduced by the British government on 9 August, 1,000 soldiers entered Ballymurphy, raiding homes and rounding up men. Loyalists began attacking Catholic homes. Nationalist youths took to the streets to stone the army. Aware of rumours that internment was imminent, many IRA members had already gone into hiding. But those who remained waged gun battles with the British.

“When internment came the women in Ballymurphy went out to bang bin-lids and there were young lads throwing stones at the Henry Taggart British army base on the Springfield Road,” recalls Briege Voyle, who was then 14. “My sister Joan and I went up to see what was happening.

“But my mother came over to order us home. Then loyalists started attacking Catholic homes in Springfield Park and the British army fired CS gas. In the chaos, we got separated from Mummy.”

The girls made it home but their mother didn’t. The paras opened fire on Catholic civilians. Joan Connolly took shelter at the barracks’ gateway. Then, she saw Noel Phillips (20) being shot. He was crawling along the field beside the Henry Taggart. “Eyewitnesses say she called out, ‘Don’t worry son, I’m coming. I’ll help you’,” says Briege.

“Mummy walked towards Noel in the field. The soldiers shot her in the face. She started screaming. ‘I can’t see, I’m blind’. Then, they shot her in the thigh and the shoulder. She was still alive and people heard her desperate pleas for help. Eventually, a Saracen drove out of the base and soldiers lifted some of the bodies. But they just left my mother’s and some others lying. And then they started firing again, using those bodies for target practice.”

Evacuated to the south

Eventually, Joan’s was taken to the morgue. Denis Connolly, who came from Monaghan, went to identify his wife. “Daddy was a big man, 6ft4in. But when he came home from the morgue, he wasn’t able to walk through the door. He had to be carried in. He couldn’t talk. He didn’t need to tell us she was dead. We just looked at him and knew and started crying.”

Hours later, Briege and her four sisters were evacuated to the south: “A car arrived and we were bundled in. We drove through the night. We were terrified. We didn’t know what was happening. We were brought to a refugee camp in Cork and then moved to one in Waterford.”

Around 7,000 refugees from the North were housed by the government in old army bases or internment camps. Two days after she left Ballymurphy, Briege was watching the RTE news. “I saw my mother’s funeral on TV. I can’t describe how awful that was. My youngest sister Irene was three-years-old. She cried her eyes out. She kept saying she wanted my mother. And the only thing I could think of saying to console her was ‘Mummy’s gone to heaven to get you sweets’.”

The sisters returned to Belfast later that year. “It was the worst time of my life. My father was in bits. There was no routine in the house. We didn’t even get dinner. Daddy couldn’t work. We had no money. He’d send us to the welfare office for food coupons. There were no social workers or counsellors to help us. I had to leave school to raise my brothers and sisters.”

Then on 30 January 1972, the paras shot dead 13 unarmed civilians in Derry. “The day after Bloody Sunday, my father was standing in the living room. He started making this strange, awful noise. He had a complete mental breakdown. He was six weeks in Purdysburn psychiatric hospital.”

Other members of the family also had breakdowns, Briege says: “My sister Denise was married to a British soldier stationed in Germany. She made many suicide attempts. Her husband eventually bought himself out of the army. My brother Patrick turned to drink to cope with losing my mother. He died, aged 50, an alcoholic.”

The British government awarded the Connollys 250 pounds compensation for the death of their mother. The army harassed the family for years, Briege says: “Once they actually played the Last Post outside our home.” But it was the lies told about their mother that were most distressing: “One soldier said my mother had opened fire on him with a Browning machine gun. My mother wouldn’t have known what a Browning was.

“When she wasn’t looking after us, she spent her time knitting. Her only vice was going to bingo. Another soldier claimed he didn’t know my mother was a woman when he shot her even though it was a bright summer’s evening, he had sights on his rifle, and she was wearing a dress.”

Briege has four children and five grandchildren of her own now. She misses her mother as much as ever. ‘Mother - there is but only one whose love will fail you never’, is the inscription on a plate in her front room. And on another wall hangs a painting of Joan in a fine yellow suit, hat, and pearls - her red hair combed into submission. “My mother always wanted a daughter with red hair but she never got one. Half her grand-children are red-haired. She’d have been as proud as punch about that.”

Fr Hugh Mullan, then 38, was on a steep learning curve when he was transferred to Corpus Christi parish in west Belfast. He’d grown up in the quiet Co Down fishing village of Portaferry and his previous parishes had all been rural. But he quickly took to the hustle and bustle of Ballymurphy. He was there six months when internment was introduced and trouble broke out. He spent the morning of 9 August unsuccessfully trying to calm the situation and talk loyalists out of attacking Catholic homes.

That evening, one of Fr Mullan’s parishioners - Bobby Clarke - was carrying children who lived beside the Henry Taggart base to other houses where they’d be safer. But Bobby himself was shot by the paras. Someone sent for Fr Mullan. Before entering the field, where Bobby was lying, the priest phoned the barracks to tell the soldiers he was going to help a wounded man. Fr Mullan waved a babygro as a makeshift white flag. He anointed Bobby in the field but then realised that, with medical help, he would live.

Fr Mullan went to phone an ambulance. He was shot in the back. Eyewitnesses heard him praying as he lay dying. “It was announced on the radio that a priest had been shot in Ballymurphy and I knew immediately that it was my brother,” says Patsy Mullan. “He had no fear and he would never abandon his parishioners.

‘He had great plans for Ballymurphy’

“He lived and breathed for them. There was a lot of poverty in Ballymurphy and whatever money he had, he gave to those who needed it. Other priests told him not to be so generous but that was his way. There was #11 in his bank account when he died. He’d great plans for Ballymurphy. He wanted to set up a community factory where local people who had no jobs could make furniture to sell. He had lots of ideas. He never got to put them into practice.”

Frank Quinn, a 19-year-old window cleaner, saw Fr Mullan go into the field to help Bobby Clarke and followed him. When Fr Mullan left to phone an ambulance, Frank stayed with the injured man. He took off his shirt and used it to try to stop the blood pouring out of Bobby’s wound. Frank was shot in the back of the head.

He had an 18-month-old daughter and his wife Ann was pregnant with their second child. “They were so happy,” says his brother Patrick. “They had just moved into a flat in Ballymurphy. It was their first proper home. I was 14 and living at home when Frank died. I remember a few days before he was killed, going over to see him, Ann and the baby. It was a beautiful sunny day and we headed down to Falls Park. I can still see us there, laughing and fooling about.

“After Frank was murdered, Ann went to live with her mother. She didn’t want to stay in the flat without Frank. She gave birth to a baby girl and called her Frances. Ann was only 19 when she was widowed but she never married again even though none of our family would have minded.”

Frank’s parents lived in the then mainly Protestant Stranmillis area of south Belfast where his father worked as a caretaker and roofer. “The British said all those killed in Ballymurphy were IRA members and the media reported that unquestioningly,” says Patrick.

“Neighbours who had known us for years suddenly stopped talking to us. Some of my father’s workmates blanked him. We were a completely non-political family but now we were branded just because my brother had been murdered. My father was worried that loyalists would kill me. He handed in his notice at work and we moved out of Stranmillis and into a nationalist area. My father lost his son, his home and his job and he’d done nothing wrong.”

Other bereaved families suffered abuse too. Father-of-seven Joseph Corr was shot by the paras as he walked along the Whiterock Road. Shortly afterwards, his wife received a letter. “May your sub-human husband and his pals roast in hell,” it read.

There had been two days of violence in Ballymurphy and John McKerr’s wife wanted him to stay at home. A joiner and father-of-six from Andersonstown, he was finishing off work in the newly built Corpus Christi Church. He told his wife he’d be fine. He could come to no harm inside the church.

But John took a break from work to allow the funeral of a local child who had drowned to take place. As he stood outside the church, a soldier shot him in the head. He died in hospital 12 days later. John had an artificial arm. “He was a better joiner than many men with two good hands,” his employer told the inquest.

John Laverty, then 20, had wanted to buy a motorbike. His father thought it far too dangerous and talked him into taking driving lessons instead. The photo for his licence was the last one ever taken of him. He left his home in Ballymurphy on 11 August with his brother Terry but they went in different directions. John was shot in the back on Dermott Hill.

Hours earlier, he had put his three sisters on a bus to take them to a refugee camp in Kildare. “It was the last time I saw our John,” says his sister Carmel Quinn. “I was crying and said I didn’t want to leave. He hugged me and told me not to worry, that I’d be back home in no time and life would be normal again.”

Eighteen-year-old Terry Laverty heard the gunfire but didn’t know it was his brother being shot. Minutes later he was himself stopped by soldiers who made him remove his socks and shoes and lie on the ground. “One pointed his gun at Terry. He said, ‘I’ve just shot one Irish bastard, another one won’t matter’. Terry later found out that this was the same soldier who had killed John. The soldier pulled the trigger to shoot Terry but the gun jammed,” Carmel says.

Terry was made to walk barefoot over glass before soldiers chained him to the railings of a local launderette, his sister claims. He was then taken to Girwood Barracks where he was held for 56 hours. “It’s only in the last two years, with the help of counselling, that Terry has talked about what happened,” Carmel says.

“He was made to sit for up to 18 hours facing a wall with his hands on his knees. If he moved a muscle, he was punched. Then he was forced to do press-ups. When he asked to go to the toilet his head was held down it, so he didn’t ask again.”

Unable to find Terry, his parents initially thought both their sons had been killed. Eventually, Terry was released. “He tried to get on with his life. He got married and had kids but he never really grew up. He stayed 18. They call it survivor’s guilt,” Carmel says.

She wants the truth told about her brother’s murder: “The paras claimed John ran at them with a gun, firing from the hip, which is impossible because they shot him in the back. They never produced the gun they said he was carrying. My mother is dead now. Her last words were: ‘Tell the world my son was innocent.’

“Even though she was heart-broken, she was never bitter. The year after John was murdered a British soldier was shot at the bottom of our street. My mother went down, put a cardigan under his head, and whispered an act of contrition into his ear. He died in her arms. She said it was right to show mercy because every victim is somebody’s son.”

‘There’s a f***ing body in the morgue’

Danny Teggart was 18 when he met Belle Clarke, a 17-year-old Protestant girl, at the cinema. At first, her family weren’t keen on their daughter dating a Catholic. Belle’s father hit Danny with a shovel. But they came round and, after the wedding, Danny’s in-laws couldn’t have been kinder.

The couple went on to have 13 children. Danny took work wherever he could find it: in factories, in a rag store, cleaning windows and - when times were very tough - he sold sticks. The best job he ever had, in his children’s eyes, was when he worked loading and unloading lorries at night. “He’d come home in the morning and we’d race out of bed shouting ‘Daddy, daddy, what have you got for us?’” his eldest child Alice recalls.

“He’d produce a box of sweets or biscuits that had burst open being loaded. As I got older, the wee luxuries were even better. I had more nylons in Ballymurphy than any other teenage girl.” In 1971, Alice was 23-years-old, married with a son, and living in Turf Lodge. On the morning of 9 August, her father called to see her.

“There’d been trouble overnight and he asked if my Uncle Gerard, who lived beside the Henry Taggart base, could stay at my house. I said of course he could. Then I told daddy I was pregnant with my second baby. He knew before anybody else in the family. I was a real daddy’s girl. He was over the moon.” That evening, Danny Teggart called at his brothers to tell him Alice had agreed he could stay with her. Danny was killed by the paras outside the barracks as he walked home. He was shot 14 times.

“When Daddy wasn’t back by 6am, my mother was frantic. So I went to the Henry Taggart. I gave the soldiers at the gateway my father’s name and asked if they knew where he was. They just laughed at me and sang a line from a song which was in the charts then, ‘Where’s your papa gone... chirpy, chirpy, cheep cheep’.

“I went back later and they did the same thing. Then a local man told me he’d seen Daddy being shot in the field beside the army base. The soldiers had come out of the base, collected all the bodies in a Saracen, then driven back in.

“So I went to the barracks a third time. I was crying and I told the soldiers I knew they’d shot my father and I wanted to see him. One soldier said, ‘There’s a f***ing body in the morgue, go and look there’ and then they all started singing again.”

After Alice had identified her father’s body in the morgue, she returned to the barracks to ask for his belongings. “I wanted his clothes and the bits and pieces he had in his pockets when he was shot. The soldiers took me in and pointed towards a wooden chest. I looked inside and there was a tangle of clothes of the dead and injured, all ripped to shreds and drenched in blood.

“I didn’t search for my father’s belongings. I just turned and walked away.” Alice says that at the inquest, soldiers claimed that bullets were found in her father’s donkey jacket: “It was a lie. He didn’t have a donkey jacket and they never produced the bullets.”

After the murder, her mother couldn’t cope with so many young children on her own. “Myself and my two other married sisters took a brother each. I was so busy looking after my family, I didn’t take care of myself during my pregnancy. My baby son died two days after he was born.”

Alice wasn’t the only family member traumatised by her father’s death. She says another sister and brother suffered nervous breakdowns. “It hurt us so much that the British army branded our father a gunman. None of us was involved in anything. Politics wasn’t even discussed at home.”

The death of Danny Teggart wasn’t the end of tragedy for the family. Two years later, Alice’s 15-year-old brother Bernard was abducted and killed by the IRA, who claimed he was an informer. Bernard had a mental age of eight. In 2004, the IRA apologised to the family for his murder.

Forty-four-year-old Pat McCarthy was an English Quaker who moved to Belfast in 1970 after securing a job as a youth leader with the Ballymurphy Tenants’ Association. He quickly won the respect of the local community.

After the introduction of internment, a curfew was imposed. Bread and milk vans were prevented from entering Ballymurphy. Local shops were closed. On 11 August, as the British army continued to fire recklessly, Pat tried to negotiate a ceasefire with the paras to have more local children evacuated. He stepped out into the street with a red cross flag tied to a brush. The flag was shot out of his hand. He suffered minor injuries but was unperturbed.

Later that day, Pat loaded milk into a trolley and walked through the streets shouting ‘Milk for babies’. Eyewitnesses say he was stopped by two paras and beaten. Then, one placed a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The weapon wasn’t loaded. Pat didn’t know that. He suffered a fatal heart attack.

‘Paras were a killing machine’

Of all the victims, Pat alone has no family to campaign for him. “We were taking photographs for an exhibition of all the Ballymurphy massacre families holding pictures of their loved ones,” says Briege Voyle. “Pat had no family member to hold his photo. So some of our children and grandchildren held it. He had showed us so much love, finally we had the chance to give him some back.”

Given the involvement of the Parachute regiment, the Ballymurphy families believe the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday should have examined the killing of their relatives too. “We’re delighted that the Bloody Sunday families have at last got some form of justice with the Saville report,” says Briege.

“But we’re also worried that it means we face an even more uphill battle. It’s highly unlikely that having admitted to one atrocity, the British army will quickly admit to another one.”

Ballymurphy proves Bloody Sunday wasn’t an aberration, she says: “It shows the paras didn’t go on a one-off bender in Derry with their superiors losing control. They were a killing machine, sent to give Ballymurphy a bloody nose, then sent six months later to do the same in the Bogside.”

The families’ account of what happened in Ballymurphy point to even more blatant brutality by the paras there than in Derry. “The world’s media wasn’t in Ballymurphy,” says Briege. “There was nothing to restrain the soldiers. Camera crews filmed Fr Daly waving a white handkerchief as he tried to help people in Derry. He couldn’t be shot dead like Fr Mullan.”

The families campaign is gaining momentum. It’s strongly supported by Sinn Fein and the SDLP. The Irish government has donated #20,000 (O24,000) which is being used to finance a report into the massacre. Kevin Winters’ solicitors has collected over 100 witness statements and obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The report, which will also examine forensic and ballistic reports and autopsies, is due to be published within six weeks. The families will send it to both the British secretary of state for the North, Owen Patterson, and Stormont justice minister, David Ford. They also plan to meet both men.

“The report will be the most definitive account of events yet during those three awful days in Ballymurphy,” says Briege. “Our objectives after that are simple: an independent international inquiry into what happened which can be done much more quickly and cheaply than Saville; a statement from the British government that our loved ones were innocent; and a public apology. Only then will the truth have been told and Ballymurphy won’t be the forgotten massacre.”

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