Whitecross: ‘My brother found the lads dead. He didn’t speak for a year afterwards’

Posted By: January 02, 2016

Suzanne Breen. Belfast Telegraph. Saturday, January 2, 2016

Eugene Reavey’s brothers John Martin, Brian and Anthony were murdered.
At first glance, nothing looks askew in the fading black-and-white photo of the Reaveys’ living room dated January 4, 1976. A Christmas tree sits in the corner. Nothing flash – just a small, simple one like we all had back then.

Cards sent to the family are strung across the ceiling. A sprig of holly sits on top of pictures in the room, even the one of the Sacred Heart. And then you see it – the pool of blood on the carpet beside the sofa. Your eye catches the bullet holes in the walls and door, and you realise that something horrific happened in that room.

The three masked UVF men did not need a sledgehammer to smash their way into the tiny cottage in the village of Whitecross in south Armagh. The key was always in the front door. Every visitor was welcome.

The three Reavey brothers were watching TV when their assailants burst in. Celebrity Squares was their favoured Sunday night viewing. John Martin (24) did not stand a chance. He died in a hail of bullets where he was sitting. Brian (22) ran into another room, but fell into the fireplace, fatally shot in the back. Anthony (17) managed to reach a bedroom and hide under a bed. The gunmen riddled the mattress, then left, believing he too was dead.

But although seriously wounded, he managed to crawl 200 yards to a neighbour’s house to raise the alarm. Three weeks later, he died from his injuries.

“It could have been worse,” says Eugene Reavey. “Our entire family could have been wiped out. Normally on a Sunday, the 12 of us would have been home, but that night my mother took everybody, except John Martin, Brian and Anthony, out to visit my aunt.

“There were eight boys in our house and we grew up so close, sharing the one bedroom. It was my brother Oliver who arrived home first to find the lads dead. He was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he didn’t speak for a year.”

Forty years on, the cottage has been demolished. Yet every detail of that awful night remains etched on Eugene’s mind. His eyes shine with pride as he speaks of his brothers. Young Anthony with his unruly mop of red hair who wrote poetry and was full of mischief. Brian, the joiner and talented Gaelic football player, the good-looking one who was the best of craic. And John Martin, the bricklayer, the reliable one who could always be depended upon to drive his mother wherever she wanted, regardless of the hour.

“My mother missed those boys every minute of every day until she died three years ago,” Eugene says. “She would run after young fellows with red hair on the street, thinking they could be Anthony.

“She’d look in the shops for a jumper that would suit John or a shirt for Brian. She still set the table at night for them. Three extra places – we could never talk her out of it.”

Eugene is haunted too: “I see my brothers in other people. I’ll be at a Gaelic football game and I’ll notice a player who reminds me of Brian – the way he catches a ball or shows a burst of speed.”

The attack was carried out by the UVF’s infamous Glenanne gang, which operated in a murder triangle spread between south Armagh and mid-Ulster.

Made up of security force members, it was run by elements of British military intelligence and was responsible for up to 130 killings, including the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

The carnage in Whitecross was the beginning of a horrific 24 hours in Northern Ireland in which 16 people were murdered.

Ten minutes after the attack on the Reaveys, other members of the Glenanne gang burst into the O’Dowd home, 15 miles up the road in Gilford, Co Down. The family were gathered around the piano for a post-New Year sing-song. Four children were in the room.

The gunmen killed Barry O’Dowd (24) his brother Declan (19) and their uncle Joe (61).

The next evening, the IRA stopped a minibus carrying factory workers at Kingsmill in south Armagh and shot dead 10 innocent Protestants.

Eugene Reavey’s father made his five surviving sons swear not to retaliate or join any republican paramilitary group. “

A few days after the shooting, a Protestant publican in Markethill told daddy the names of the killers,” Eugene says.

“He kept those names to himself until he was on his death bed in 1981, and then he told me. In turn, I kept the names secret because I didn’t want anybody taking the law into their own hands. Then, in 2006, I told the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).”

The HET was the first State body to show any interest in the triple murder. Eugene says: “In the three decades until then, nobody crossed our door. The police file on the killings was only a page-and-a-half long.”

The three gunmen who entered the Reaveys’ home were Robert McConnell, a UDR member later killed by the IRA; RUC officer James Mitchell, who died seven years ago; and another RUC man who is still alive but cannot be named for legal reasons. The getaway car was driven by Mitchell’s girlfriend.

The night before the Reavey brothers were killed, they had played pool with brothers Walter and Reginald Chapman, who would themselves be murdered 48 hours later at Kingsmill.

“When I was in the hospital morgue collecting my brothers’ bodies, the Kingsmill relatives arrived,” says Eugene.

“Our family knew them all. I offered my condolences. That massacre wasn’t in our name. The victims weren’t our enemies, they were our friends. They were ordinary decent people, just like us.”