IN what were abnormal times by any standards, the McCallion family from Fenaghy Road, between Galgorm and Cullybackey, led a very normal life.
Dad Jim loved football. Mum Doreen played hockey. They lived for each other and their three teenage sons. All in all, they were a solid, happy family unit.
But back in 1976, at the height of one of the darkest periods of the ‘troubles’, the McCallion family were struck a blow which tragically changed all their lives forever.
For 38-year-old Jim, a popular local footballer who worked in Gallaher’s Lisnafillan plant, it was a mortal blow. For the remainder of the family, the effects of that blow have not and never will be forgotten.
On the night of Friday, July 2, 1976, the McCallion family joined the growing ranks of innocent victims of the appalling conflict which tore Northern Ireland part for more than 30 years. A casual decision to ‘go a wee drive’ and call in for a drink at a popular pub almost mid-way between Ballymena and Antrim had dreadful consequences.
For the hostelry that Jim and Doreen chose to stop at was ‘The Ramble Inn’ and literally minutes after they sat down the doors were burst open by two men in balaclavas.
The bar was sprayed with machine gun fire, slaying Jim and five other men. Jim died in the pub along with Frank Scott and Oliver Woulahan and three later died in hospital - James Francey, Joseph Ellis and Ernie Moore.
Last week, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which has been re-examining and trying to further the initial investigation of the terrible atrocity at the Ramble Inn all those years ago, met with the McCallion family to ‘de-brief’ them on what they have been able to discover during a meticulous year long trawl through archival documents and other material related to the case.
The McCallion family, for logistical reasons, were the last ‘victims and relatives’ of all those who were impacted by the Ramble Inn atrocity to receive the HET de-briefing.
This week, they speak for themselves, giving their reaction to the HET findings and treading through painful memories which have been with them for the last 36 years.
In simple historical terms, Frank Scott (75), Ernest Moore (40), Jim McCallion (38), Joseph Ellis (27) and James Francey (50), all Protestants, and Oliver Woulahan (20), a Catholic, were shot and killed during what has long been speculated to be an Ulster Volunteer Force gun attack on the Ramble Inn on the Antrim-Ballymena Road which was Catholic owned but enjoyed a very mixed and friendly clientele.
The attack came at around 11pm. Nine customers in total were hit by indiscriminate gunfire, three dying at the scene and three later.
On July 3 at 12.30am, an anonymous caller to the Newsletter claimed the attack was in retaliation for an attack on Walker’s Public House, Templepatrick, on 25 June, 1976, in which three Protestants had died. That attack was attributed to the PIRA.
And in most history books or archives of ‘the troubles’, that’s how the event is summed up. For those who felt the pain generated by those few seconds of concentrated gunfire, the few lines above tell little more than the barest outline.
Jim McCallion’s widow, Doreen Brewster’s (she has since re-married) memory of the day her life changed forever begins with the weather.
“It’s fixed in my mind that it was a really hot day,” she recalls. “David, our youngest boy was away with the youth club while Stephen, the middle boy was off in Scotland on a trip. Allan, the eldest was 17 and was well able to look after himself. Jim and I had some time to ourselves and we’d just bought a new car, a wee white Datsun, and he suggested we go for a run on such a nice evening.”
Doreen remembers: “Jim suggested we go to a place we’d never been before together. It turned out to be The Ramble Inn. Jim had gone in their a few times when he was coming back from football games and I’d been there once or twice coming home from a hockey match but we’d never been at The Ramble as a couple. We weren’t regulars, it was just a nice wee place to call in for a drink before heading back home.”
But while Jim and Doreen were on their tour in their new car, a gang of killers were mounting the first stage of an evil operation which plumbed the depths of barbarity, even by the horrific standards of Ulster’s troubles.
That evening, the gang crept up on a couple in a car parked at Tardree Forest, not far from the murder scene. They gagged and taped the pair and tumbled them down a bank, before making off with their vehicle.
The gang consisted of the two gunmen and a driver. Soon they were on the way to the little pub where Doreen and Jim had just ordered a drink and sat down.
Later police investigations revealed that the gunmen had got out of the car, peered in through the windows and then pulled the black woollen hats they were wearing down over their faces before opening the door to the public bar.
“I saw two guns,” says Doreen. “I just screamed ‘get down, get down, get down’ ... and then the firing started. I don’t have any memories of noise - it was so fast. I just remember Jim falling. I simply knew straightaway he was dead. I’m sure it was chaos but my abiding memory is of someone taking me out, putting me in a car and taking me home.”
For Doreen, now 73, the event would, quite understandably, be a defining moment in her life.
And so, last Monday, September 17, Doreen Brewster, Stephen and David McCallion, Jim’s sister Mary Holden and her daughter, Patricia Leakey, and other family and friends, some who had travelled from as far away as England, gathered at a location in Ballymena to hear the outcome of the year-long work of the HET. Sadly, Allan McCallion was never able to hear the results of the probe, having lost his life in a drowning incident in Coleraine in January 2012.
And, while some of the family’s questions were answered and some niggling doubts resolved, they were not surprised to learn that true justice is unlikely to be served.
Stephen, a senior corporate communications executive based in the Netherlands, and younger brother David, who lives in Coleraine, flanked their mother at the proceedings.
On Tuesday morning, they gave their reaction to the de-briefing at an emotion tinged meeting at Patricia’s Ballymena home.
“I’d like to make it clear that we are only speaking as the McCallion family,” says Stephen. “These are our views alone and we fully recognise that others who have been impacted will have their own perspective.”
Balancing the hefty, ringbound HET dossier in his hand, Stephen acknowledged the sheer hard work performed by the HET team.
“On behalf of the family, and especially my mother, I’d like to compliment the HET. They have carried out a meticulous investigation which was marked throughout by courtesy, sincerity and genuine humanity - they worked with the sensitivity and professionalism the situation deserved. We are convinced they went down every avenue possible to reveal to us just what happened at the time. More than that, they analysed fingerprints taken at the time using a new database which had not been available in 1976.
“That probe has made clear that the RUC detectives assigned to the case at the time tried their very best to bring the killers to justice. HET were able to show us just how interviews were carried out. They referenced the enormous weight of documentation and other evidence compiled by the RUC as they sought to resolve this case. That in itself has been new information for us because, as my mother will tell you, it was much more difficult to get an assessment of progress in the case from the RUC at the time.”
Doreen admits she ‘pestered the life’ out of the chief investigating officer for months after the incident.
“In the end I gave up because I wasn’t being told anything. He must have got fed up with me too because, after a time, my calls went unanswered,” she says.
Back in those days, it must be admitted, ‘victim support’ was not a high priority. Things have changed a great deal since.
“You have to remember how bad those times were,” says Stephen. “Growing up in that period, what was abnormal in any other society was regarded as somehow normal in ours. I suppose the police must have been swamped by their workload.”
However, it is now clear that the investigation into the Ramble murders was driven relentlessly by detectives. In the weeks following the incident, a number of people were interviewed in relation to the crime but all were released without charge.
It was a time when law enforcement had no access to now standard investigative techniques such as DNA matching. And hard, court worthy evidence was very difficult to come by.
Says Stephen: “At least we know now that they did try so hard - we know the timings, we know what happened before and what came after. What we don’t know, even after the original probe and this very thorough enquiry is who killed Jim McCallion and the other victims at the Ramble Inn.
“We still do not have any organisation defined as being behind the murders. The strong contention remains that it was the one of the main Protestant paramilitary groups and that they remained silent when it transpired that most of the victims came from the Protestant community. As if that made any difference at all! What happened that night at the Ramble was simply a cowardly act of cold blooded murder. The people who died there were totally and completely innocent, their religious denomination is irrelevant -they simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
So it seems that authorities are no nearer finding the killers of Jim McCallion ... remembered by his sons as a keen footballer with teams like Nelson’s FC and Lisnafillan, and a loving husband and father. But someone out there is bound to know something, and the McCallion family strongly hope that someday, perhaps in the not too distant future, a call of conscience may give them the knowledge they require to achieve some kind of justice.
Doreen comments: “It may even be a death-bed confession. In fact, some or all of the people who planned and carried these murders out may already be dead. But secrets like that do not stay buried forever. One day we hope the truth will come out.”
For the McCallion family, there will be memories of a sun-soaked holiday in Benidorm the previous summer. And of blustery seaside holidays in less than sun-soaked Portrush, Cushendall and Carnlough. But that lifestyle changed forever on that hot July evening back in 1976.
For them, this one story from Ulster’s carnage filled catalogue of atrocities is far from ended. Closure? It’s just a cliche to them.
“There is no real closure,” says Stephen. “You just go on living with it.”
Story: Des Blackadder