'There was an almighty explosion - I thought Philip Rainey was dead' - ex-Irish rugby stars remember IRA bomb 30 years on
Even now, 30 years on, David Irwin can recall the events of April 25, 1987, almost frame-by-frame.
He remembers waiting for his Ireland team-mate Nigel Carr to arrive at his Belfast home, and thinking it was peculiar, as Carr was never late for anything. He remembers the battered old Ford Orion Ghia in which they were to share the driving to Dublin for Ireland’s first World Cup training session, and the run of green lights that seemed to be speeding their journey. And he remembers picking up Philip Rainey, the Ulster and Ireland full-back, after he had been dropped off by seven-months-pregnant wife, Susan.
Rainey had jumped into the back seat behind Carr, and the tedium of the journey was relieved by the joshing and jibing you would expect from three men in the prime of their rugby careers, just weeks away from the inaugural World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in the following month.
Carr and Rainey were both 27, Irwin 28. The world was still at their feet. Yet as the car approached the border with the Republic of Ireland at Killeen, that world was seconds away from being blown apart.
All three players already had plenty of stories to tell. Irwin, a teak-tough centre, had reached his career pinnacle, having been a stalwart of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 1983, starting in three of the four Tests.
Rainey had the misfortune of coinciding his international career with the great Ireland full-back Hugo MacNeill, but had already etched his name into Irish rugby folklore by landing a last-gasp long-range penalty to secure a famous victory for Ulster against the Grand Slam-winning Australia side in November 1984.
Carr, though, was the man of the moment. He had burst on to the international scene in 1985 and the tearaway openside flanker had been the key cog in Ireland coach Mick Doyle’s ‘give it a lash’ game plan that clinched the Triple Crown that year.
He had been a certainty to tour with the Lions for their tour of South Africa in 1986 but when politics intervened and the tour was cancelled, he was selected at openside in the Lions side that year that played against the Rest of the World XV to celebrate the International Rugby Board’s centenary.
Despite the demands of his day job as a forensic scientist, he was widely regarded as one of the fittest and most dynamic back row forwards in the northern hemisphere and was relishing the prospect of testing himself against the world’s best down under.
The three had played rugby against each other at school and then bonded like brothers while team-mates at Queen’s University, Ulster and then the Ireland camp.
Irwin was regaling his companions with tales of his medical exams when the group’s car passed a Ford Cortina parked on the side of the road, just as another vehicle was alongside them driving north in the other lane. Inside it was Lord Justice Maurice Gibson, at the time the second highest judge in Northern Ireland.
The 73-year-old and his wife, Lady Cecily, were returning from a short holiday. Moments earlier the judge had stopped to shake hands with the members of the Garda, the Irish police force, who had escorted him to the border at the Customs post at Dromad. But as he drove towards the Royal Ulster Constabulary escort that awaited him at the other side of the border, the IRA remotely donated a 500lb bomb in the Cortina, killing the judge and his wife instantly and throwing their car towards Irwin’s.
“There was just this almighty explosion, a huge noise and what appeared to be a thousand flash bulbs going off,” recalled Irwin. “In that instant I thought my car had been blown up and I remember thinking ‘why me?’ I thought it must have been a mistake. The next thing I remember was seeing another car facing the same way as me, as if it had just stopped beside me. Inside was just an inferno and two vague shadows in the front seat and I thought it must have been two police officers.
“I felt my arms, felt my legs and I was still in one piece but as I looked out my driver’s window to my right, there was a huge crater, about 15ft across the road.
I looked to my left and the whole of the front of my car had been pushed in towards the passenger side because the car had hit my front right-hand corner – another thousandth of a second and it would have hit me directly – and the roof was pushed down.”
In the back of the car Rainey was lying across the seats unconscious. “I thought he was dead,” recalled Irwin, who remarkably had only suffered a cut to the nose and singed hair from the blast. Fate, critically, had also determined that Irwin, with his medical training, was the only one of the three who was fully conscious and mobile.
“I got out of the car and it was obvious that the two people in the other car were already dead,” he recalled. “I tried to get Nigel’s door open, which was difficult because it had been bent and crushed and eventually yanked it open. He had a bad cut across his forehead and his legs were trapped by the dashboard but I told him I had to get him out because the petrol tank could explode.
“I took him under his armpits and actually pulled him out of his trainers and carried him 30 metres up the road and lay him down on a grass verge. He told me his right thigh was painful and I told him he might have broken his femur so I took my belt off and tied his knees together.”
A fuel tanker passed by and Irwin called for the driver to phone for an ambulance while he also had to comfort several nurses from Dun Laoghaire who had been travelling in a car behind the Gibsons.
By the time Irwin had returned to the car, Rainey had stirred. “Thankfully, he had just been knocked out and I took him up the road as well and lay him down beside Nige.”
Remarkably Carr and Rainey, who had no memories of those desperate moments after the bomb, would only discover the extent of Irwin’s heroics when the three met up over 20 years later to discuss the tragedy for a documentary.
Carr’s first memory of the incident is being taken in an ambulance to the Daisy Hospital in Newry when he heard in hushed tones about two people being killed. “I thought it was Davy or Philip,” recalled Carr, who was the most seriously injured of the trio, having suffered cracked ribs, internal wounds and injuries to his knee and ankle that would bring a premature end to his rugby career. The man hailed by Irwin as “the Richie McCaw of his time” would never play for Ireland again.
“If it had happened now, sports medicine would probably have allowed me to play again and in some ways I feel guilty that I didn’t play again,” said Carr, who left the forensic science profession afterwards and now works in the innovation, research and technology division at Invest Northern Ireland after a spell as a sports broadcaster.
“But I wasn’t right. After the bomb I changed as a person. I still wish I was the carefree guy before it, but since then I have been very sensitive and almost too empathetic to others.”
Rainey, like Irwin, had only superficial injuries and the pair, remarkably, would return to Ireland training the following week and both go to the World Cup. “I was at training again on Monday morning,” added Irwin, who was appointed captain of Ireland for the tour of France in 1988. “My car was a write-off and I lost money on the insurance. There was a lot of goodwill from the Irish rugby community but it was an amateur game and we didn’t receive any financial support.
We got a few hundred pounds from the Northern Ireland Office for being involved in an ‘incident’ but in my mind though we were alive and that was all that mattered. Many people had to go through much worse than we did.”
The biggest impact for Rainey – who would eventually win his first Ireland cap against New Zealand in 1989, alongside Irwin – was on deciding whether or not he wanted to bring his young family up in Northern Ireland. “It made me realise that whatever your plans are in life, everything can change in an instant. We were lucky that day. So many people were killed or badly injury during that period in Northern Ireland. I looked for jobs in England, but realised that anything could happen anywhere. I am glad I stayed.”
Irwin, who now runs a GP practice in Belfast and has been the Ulster team doctor since the 1990s, missed out on captaining Ireland in 1988 because of a back injury, which he thought may have been a consequence of the blast, but insists that 30 years on he stills feels lucky, not bitter.
“You have to make the most out of your life and I am very aware that we were three of tens of thousands of people who were affected at that time. I don’t feel bitter, just proud to play for Ireland.”