Friday 18 October 2019

'It never leaves you. I lost myself. I lost everything' - The tragic story behind one of Ireland's greatest sporting moments

Aidan O'Toole was working in the Heights Bar at the time of the attack and was shot but survived.
Aidan O'Toole was working in the Heights Bar at the time of the attack and was shot but survived.
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

"Everyone says he's the best defender in the world," Jack Charlton announced to his players. "I'm not so sure."

Five weeks before Ireland's daunting Giants Stadium assignment in 1994, Italy stars Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti, Demetrio Albertini and Roberto Donadoni had been part of, not just a Champions League-winning AC Milan side, but a squad that thrashed Barcelona 4-0 in the final.

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Most saw no weakness in the Azzurri.

As in so many other areas across his tenure, Charlton saw it differently.

He'd spoken to his players about Maldini in particular and was convinced he could be got at, especially on the turn. To prove this point further, he had a video of Jurgen Klinsmann illustrating just that.

The Republic of Ireland team who defeated Italy at USA 94. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Bold and brave?

Delusion and madness?

Phelim Warren was one of the 15,000 that had travelled from here to the game. He and 14 mates from CYM Terenure made the trip and, having never been to New York, he struggled to take it all in. Little Italy, in particular, blew his mind the most.

"It was like something from The Sopranos. Incredible. A real eye-opener. Going into restaurants and bars, seeing guys with the cigars and the jewellery and they were selling tickets. We were very well received but the Italian-Americans were very confident that they'd turn us over. We didn't share that. We were hopeful despite it being Italy. We weren't going over there as underdogs. I always felt we had more than a good chance."

Upon entering Giants Stadium, hope went up another notch.

"It was only when you got into the ground, the sight of Irish fans was breathtaking. It was probably the most amazing stadium I've been in. Steep. And it was rocking. There was just something in the air. Players remarked that they couldn't believe the crowd that was there to support them."

As Warren made his way to his seat and stared down at a mix of those from home and those long since forced from home, but who hadn't forgotten where they came from, Eamon Dunphy was already set up in the press box. He had the same feeling looking out.

"Everyone had noted New York is an Italian city and we thought the place would be full of them and we went in and were looking around. Two-thirds Irish. We'd won that particular match, but the Italians were a very good side. This was a big, big, big, big day. Exhausting and exhilarating at the same time."

First came the exhilaration.

Eleven minutes in and Ray Houghton scores a goal that Dunphy describes as "fluky in a way".

Republic of Ireland's Ray Houghton shoots to score his side's first goal. 1994 World Cup, Pool E, Republic of Ireland v Italy, The Giants Stadium, New Jersey, USA. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Thereafter was the exhaustion, as what ought to be remembered most was the resistance, particularly that of Paul McGrath, whose performance probably rises above that of Roy Keane against the Netherlands in 2001 and Richard Dunne against Russia in 2011, as the greatest individual effort in Irish soccer history.

McGrath had played against Beppe Signori and Roberto Baggio before but on this occasion, a virus had rendered one of his arms useless and still this was his Stalingrad. "For him to play like that, simply staggering," says Warren. "Packie had to make one great save from Signori but, that aside, it was actually comfortable. Completely deserved.

"With that, being young, we went on the lash."

Upstairs meanwhile, Dunphy was waiting to celebrate. "First I wrote five pieces for the Sunday Indo."

When he filed them all, out he went and his company for the evening was actor Stephen Rea and Professor Billy Hall, who was one of the lead doctors in the discovery of the aids vaccine. Both were from the north and they "were none too happy as I was a revisionist and they weren't. It was mad. We ended up in a pub fighting about the Troubles. Stephen is a very strong nationalist, a republican. A hell of a day though and the pinnacle of the Jack experience, even more so than Italia '90. It wasn't for me even nationalism as such, it was just a celebration of Irishness and what sport can do and how sport can really unite and illuminate a sense pride.

"A lot of Irish-Americans had known bad times as well, and for them it provided a sense of long-lost identity. It's hard to intellectualise it or rationalise it as it was full of emotion. The kind of day when you could genuinely say that Irish people punched above their weight, overcame the odds, and had a spirit that was undaunted. That's what I took out of it. The very best of what we are."

Little did he know of 18 June, 1994, though, as news in those times didn't travel fast.

A football match should never have been the real story.

* * *

"Some goal, wasn't it?" Aidan O'Toole asks rhetorically.

He laughs but it doesn't take long for it to give way to his reality.

Before that match, he describes himself as a sports lover who lined out for the local GAA team and enjoyed a night of darts with a pint. After it? "You'd be safer asking the wife that question. She'd tell you. A couple of breakdowns, so I did. It never leaves you. I lost myself, lost everything. Had a wee plastering business that was going well but it turned me into a recluse."

As for Loughinisland, at kick-off time it was "a wee quiet village, no one ever heard of us. A small farming community. Small rural pub, all we ever talked about was football and farming. A mixed community. Everyone was more than welcome and still are and always will be. And that night changed the world for every person in this village..." His voice trails away into reflection.

By the second half, it would never be the same. Nor would anyone from there be the same.

O'Toole was 25, a bar man in The Height's in what's barely a village. The pub wasn't overly full despite the occasion as his father and 30 others had made their way to the airport that morning and flew to Romania, where they were helping with the construction of an orphanage. Still, it doesn't take many to fill up what is no bigger than a living room. He remembers 87-year-old Barney Green and his nephew Dan McCreanor sitting right inside the door. Father-of-four Eamon Byrne was a little further in, as were Malcolm Jenkinson, Adrian Rogan and Patrick O'Hare.

A roar had gone up for Houghton's strike and during the interval small talk briefly turned to the Ulster semi-final the next day, where their own Gary Mason would be on free-taking duty against Monaghan. Then the second-half kicked off and minutes in, the doors of the saloon swung open.

"The crackle," says O'Toole. "I felt a piercing feeling in my kidney and I just knew something was very wrong. I don't know, adrenaline or whatever it was grabbed me and it took me up into the store room and out onto the road. It didn't even last long but it didn't have to. They were in and out maybe in three minutes so they were. I came back in and called 999 and just stared."

Eleven had been shot.

Green, McCreanor, Byrne, Jenkinson, Rogan and O'Hare would never find out the final score.

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Aidan O'Toole was working in the Heights Bar at the time of the attack and was shot but survived.

Just a seven-mile drive down the road, and a little over an hour after that crackle, Down player Conor Deegan was finishing up a shift in Dick's Cabin in Downpatrick. He had spent his night working on security as the attitude within the squad was to do what you always did as preparation for a match. DJ Kane had once told them he usually had two pints of Guinness and went to bed, and that had taken them to a 1991 All-Ireland title so why change a winning formula.

Deegan had only locked the doors and was getting ready to clear people out after they'd finished up last orders and then "there was an unmerciful thump on the door. I knew something wrong".

"It was strange," he adds. "A very heavy hit, a lot of shouting. Without knowing what had happened, I cracked the door open slightly and whoever it was, they were trying to push in and I was pushing back. Eventually they prized it open enough and a boy stuck some RUC credentials in. In they came and they cleared the place out in two minutes flat. At that stage they said what happened and it went around the locals like wildfire. The place was numb. Normally the people drinking spill out and still congregate on the street for a wee while, that night they went quickly home. Obviously there were people from Loughinisland in the place and we'd have known them.

"The next day, going to the match and Gary Mason being part of that," he continues, as Mason himself said he'd prefer not to speak on it when contacted. "To this day, I cannot comprehend how he got through a football game. We were all shocked it went ahead. The changing rooms weren't normal. We were very aware of Gary. A very numbing experience. Over the years we had a Range Rover blown up and a policeman was shot but even at that the Troubles didn't come to our part of the world much. They were always for and from and belonging to elsewhere."

Gary Mason, a Loughinisland local, played for Down the day after the shooting. Picture credit; David Maher / SPORTSFILE

For many, that was what was most striking. Award-winning journalist Suzanne Breen went to do a story for the Irish Times around it and recalls how the "killing zones" back then were seen as being along the border and in north and west Belfast. "But this was a really sleepy, rural community. People weren't politicised at all. I remember seeing a photo of Barney Green. The oldest victim of the Troubles and there was him with his hat and his pipe. It brought it home."

It's that photo that brought it home to Hugh O'Toole - Aidan's father - too, snapping him back to his new reality like a clap of the hands in front of a sleeping face. Having gotten to Romania exhausted, a couple of the younger lads "went out and found a wee tavern to watch the game". They came back and told them how Ireland won but they hadn't heard the real news yet.

"The wife had a number for the orphanage but it was about 9.30 the next morning," he says. "Horrendous. Shock. All of us. And we had to organise a way back. I came back with a lad Joe Leahy who lives across the road from the bar, and the worst was we flew into Stansted and I see that photo on the newspaper of Barney and it hit me like a punch. We came back and showered and cleaned ourselves up and I'd to visit Aidan in the hospital and then the families of those killed and it was all like a bad dream. It still is." There remains a clip of Hugh from the news upon arrival, walking up to the bar and Aidan adds that "the man was just broken. Everyone was".

Hugh continues: "I'd have been killed if it wasn't for that trip, and a lot more too, but there's so much to come to terms with. It doesn't feel real. Two months later I went back to the bar and had to clean it up and I spent a lot of time on my own in that room, thinking about those men and thinking about what happened. And I'll never forget seeing that picture of Barney either."

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A plaque on the wall of O’Tooles bar in Loughinisland, Co Down to remember those murdered on June 18th, 1994.

To this day, there's another photo that brings it home too. The word massacre is used and might not settle in until you see the snap of that bar, smeared and soaked in claret as if an abattoir. "The fact they were just there watching a World Cup game like so many others," adds Breen, "it made people connect with it and realise these people were doing just as they were that night."

"I've protestant neighbours and they came over and were disgusted by religion," continues Aidan O'Toole. "But it had nothing to do with religion. They were saying we are sorry but these were just killers. The bar was closed for about eight weeks and I opened it and worked in it the first night back. All the families came down. A bit of a cry. They weren't going to let them win. They've wrecked so many lives in the community, but if the bar had of closed they'd have won."

Deegan and Mason and Down would go on to win another All Ireland by that summer's end.

In sleepy Loughlinisland, they were about to begin their search for the men in the balaclavas.

* * *

Back in the Height's last Tuesday, Aidan O'Toole opened up where he has continued to work and says that job saved his life. They lit a candle to mark 25 years and said the rosary. Like most villages, that place is the hub of the community, a gathering place, but for some it remains too much.

Speaking outside the church before they made the pilgrimage to the scene of the most heinous of crimes, O'Toole got speaking with Marie Byrne, who lost both her brother and her husband to the bullets and the hate. "I said to her I'm going over if she wants to come with me and she says she just can't. She cannot go there. She had a wee child at the time, her youngest was six weeks and her eldest was eight and she had four boys to rare by herself. She says to me last Tuesday that it was a lovely bright evening, and that the night it happened was just like that and you know what? She was right. Just the same. She's a broken woman ever since."

Officially, six were murdered. In reality, it took pieces and parts of a great many more.

Perhaps it was the soccer victory that night. Perhaps it was familiarity with violence. Perhaps it was because that violence tended to belong to those across the border. But for much of the quarter of a century since Houghton put the ball in the net, that massacre has been little more than a whisper. Then in 2017, journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey released their incredible documentary, 'No Stone Unturned'. Better late than never, many more became aware.

There was so much to shock. The get-away vehicle being destroyed by the police rather than by the murderers. Interview transcripts being thrown away due to asbestos in a station. The gun used in the killings getting a pass into the province via what at best was the ineptitude of the authorities. An initial report saying there was no collusion when it couldn't have been more obvious. The complete silence of the special branch. "Every time, it's one step forward and the police near enough nab us back," says O'Toole. "The police ombudsman now agrees. Collusion."

For those from the south though, what was most striking was the naming of men which it claimed were involved in the killings. The documentary alleged that two of those supposedly involved today live four miles up the road.

"We are 25 years down the road, 11 people were shot that night," notes Conor Deegan. "There's obviously stories going around about this individual asking how the Gaelic is going, all these snide remarks. Why this long to have anything done?"

But something was done. Not for committing the crime, but for trying to tell the story.

* * *

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The Heights Bar, Loughinisland, today.

It was shortly before 7am on the morning of 31 August last year and Trevor Birney was dealing with a crisis. His youngest daughter didn't want to go back to school and with her favourite cousin over visiting from London, it made a day at home more tempting again. Then there was a loud rap on the door like Deegan remembered from all those years ago. Birney's wife looked out, saw an armada of cars and then realised it was the police. The initial thought was something had happened to loved ones. "I bet this is to do with Loughinisland," Birney finally thought out loud.

"We opened the door," he remembers. "The police said they'd a warrant and stormed in dressed in boiler suits and carrying guns. We've three children under the age of eight in the house, two from London visiting who know nothing about growing up in Northern Ireland and what that is like, so my wife was trying to protect them from the scene that was emerging.

"Within minutes there were police all through the house. Police were going through our private possessions. They took my laptop, they took my wife's phone, they took my eight-year-old's little pink phone with a cracked screen we only gave to her to play games on, they took our 15-year-old daughter's USB stick, which she used for exam coursework, they took the memory card from our family camera."

An official statement was put out claiming that the arrest was for theft and handling of stolen goods, when in fact it was merely material from sources. The two journalists had never even been shy about what was in their possession, putting the documents in their documentary.

"The anger and frustration Barry and I still feel is particularly over the fact they put that out, almost to send out a message to editors and journalists."

Back in Loughinisland, Aidan O'Toole is thinking back on it all, as he's done every day since. "Some goal," he mutters again but there's no emotion in his words this time, just distraction.

'It's Baresi, and onto it comes Houghton. And it's Houghton with the shot and it's there. Ray Houghton. 'Bring me back and I'll do the job for you Jack.' And he's done just that.'

It would be nice to think the roar outlasted the sound of gun fire, but it didn't.

For those left behind, George Hamilton's commentary has long gone silent.

The crackle of the gun still rings out in their minds. 

"The world stopped that day," Aidan O'Toole sighs.

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