The Reavey and O’Dowd killings were two co-ordinated gun attacks on 4 January 1976 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Volunteers from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group, shot dead five unarmed Irish Catholic civilians. Two members of the Reavey family were shot dead at their home in Whitecross and three members of the O’Dowd family were shot dead at their home in Ballydougan. Another two were wounded and one of them died of brain hemorrhage almost a month later. The shootings were part of a string of attacks on Catholics and Irish nationalists by the “Glenanne gang”; an alliance of loyalist militants, British soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police officers. Billy McCaughey, a police officer from the RUC Special Patrol Group, admitted taking part and accused another officer of being involved. His colleague, John Weir, said that two police officers and a British soldier were involved.
The next day, gunmen shot dead ten Protestant civilians in the Kingsmill massacre. This was claimed as retaliation for the Reavey and O’Dowd shootings. Kingsmill was the deadliest and last in a string of tit-for-tat killings in the area during the mid-1970s.
In February 1975, the Provisional IRA and British Government entered into a truce and restarted negotiations. The IRA agreed to halt its attacks on the British security forces, and the security forces mostly ended its raids and searches. However, there were dissenters on both sides. Some Provisionals wanted no part of the truce, while British commanders resented being told to stop their operations against the IRA just when—they claimed—they had the Provisionals on the run. The security forces boosted their intelligence offensive during the truce and thoroughly infiltrated the IRA.
There was a rise in sectarian killings during the truce, which ‘officially’ lasted until February 1976. Loyalists, fearing they were about to be forsaken by the British Government and forced into a united Ireland, increased their attacks on the Irish Catholic and nationalist community. Loyalists killed 120 Catholics in 1975, the vast majority civilians. They hoped to force the IRA to retaliate and thus end the truce. Some IRA units concentrated on tackling the loyalists. The fall-off of regular operations had caused unruliness within the IRA and some members, with or without permission from higher up, engaged in tit-for-tat killings. Many of the loyalist attacks in the County Armagh area have been linked to the “Glenanne gang”; a secret alliance of loyalist militants, British soldiers and RUC police officers.
On 27 April 1975, the UVF shot dead three Catholic civilians at a social club in Bleary, near Ballydougan. It has been claimed that members of the Glenanne gang were involved.
On 31 July, UVF members (some of whom were also British soldiers) shot dead three members of an Irish pop band at Buskhill, near Whitecross. The band’s minibus had been stopped at a bogus military checkpoint by gunmen in British Army uniforms. There were two further attacks like this over the following month. On 1 August, another minibus was stopped at a bogus military checkpoint outside Gilford, near Ballydougan. The gunmen opened-fire, killing two Catholic civilians and wounding several other passengers. On 24 August, another two Catholic civilians were taken from their car at a checkpoint in Altnamachin and shot dead. According to RUC officer John Weir, a fellow officer said that he and a British soldier were involved in the Altnamachin shootings. All three attacks have been linked to the Glenanne gang.
On 22 August, the UVF launched a gun and bomb attack on McGleenan’s Bar in Armagh, killing three Catholic civilians and wounding several more. The Glenanne gang has been linked to the attack.
On 1 September, gunmen shot dead five Protestant civilians at Tullyvallan Orange Hall, near Whitecross. The “South Armagh Republican Action Force” claimed responsibility.
On 19 December, two civilians were killed when loyalists detonated a car bomb at Kay’s Tavern in Dundalk, a few miles across the Irish border. Hours later, three Catholic civilians were killed and six were wounded in a gun and bomb attack on Donnelly’s Bar in Silverbridge, near Whitecross. The UVF-aligned Red Hand Commando claimed responsibility for both attacks. The Silverbridge attack has been linked to the Glenanne gang, and RUC officers investigating it said they believed the culprits included an RUC officer and a British soldier.
On 31 December, three Protestant civilians were killed in an explosion at Central Bar, Gilford. The “People’s Republican Army” claimed responsibility. The Irish News reported that the Reavey and O’Dowd killings were a retaliation for this bombing.
At about 6.10 p.m., three masked men entered a Catholic-owned house in Whitecross, by the key that had accidentally been left in the front door. One of the men was armed with a machine gun. Once inside they shot brothers John (24), Brian (22) and Anthony (17) Reavey. After searching the house and finding no-one else, the gunmen left. John and Brian were killed outright, but Anthony survived and sought help at a neighbour’s house. He died of a brain hemorrhage on 30 January. Although the pathologist said that the shooting played no part in his death, Anthony is listed as a Troubles-related death. Neighbours claimed that there had been two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) checkpoints set up—one at either end of the road—around the time that the attack took place. These checkpoints would have stopped passers-by seeing what was happening. The RUC denied having patrols in the area at the time, but said that there could have been checkpoints manned by the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).
At about 6.30 p.m., three masked men entered another Catholic-owned house in Ballydougan, about twenty miles away. Sixteen family members were in the house at the time as part of a celebration. They shot dead Joseph O’Dowd (61) and his nephews Barry (24) and Declan (19) O’Dowd. All three were members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the family believe this is why they were targeted. Barney O’Dowd (Barry and Declan’s father) was also wounded by gunfire. The RUC concluded that the weapon used was a 9mm submachine gun, although Barney claimed that a Luger pistol with a suppressor was also used. It is highly likely the gunmen had crossed a field to get to the house, and there is evidence that UDR soldiers had been in the field the day before.
According to the Reavey and O’Dowd families, the RUC officers sent to investigate the shootings were hostile and unhelpful—the Reavey family claimed the RUC’s attitude was that “your brothers were not shot for nothing”. The police inquest, however, found that the family had no links with paramilitaries.
In 1988, while imprisoned, former RUC officer Billy McCaughey admitted being one of the men who took part in the Reavey attack—although he denied firing any shots. At that time he was a member of the RUC’s Special Patrol Group (SPG), but in 1980 he was imprisoned for his involvement in the sectarian murder of chemist William Strathearn. McCaughey did not face any charges in connection with the Reavey shooting. He also claimed that RUC reservist James Mitchell had driven the getaway car, along with his housekeeper Lily Shields. Eugene Reavey, who had worked as a poultry advisor, knew Mitchell and used to visit his farm once a week.
RUC SPG officer John Weir, in his affidavit made to Irish Supreme Court Justice Henry Barron, named those involved in the Reavey shootings as Robert McConnell (a soldier of the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment), Laurence McClure (an RUC SPG officer), James Mitchell and another man. In a meeting with Eugene Reavey, the RUC officer heading the investigation also named McConnell, McClure and Mitchell as suspects. Anthony Reavey’s description of the man carrying the submachine gun closely fits that of McConnell, despite the gunman having worn a black woollen balaclava. McConnell was implicated in the 1974 Dublin car bombings as well as multiple sectarian attacks.
Weir named Mid-Ulster UVF leader Robin “the Jackal” Jackson as the main gunman in the O’Dowd shootings. Investigating officers told Barney O’Dowd that Jackson was involved but they did not have enough evidence to charge him. Jackson has also been named as having had a central role in the 1974 Dublin car bombings, Miami Showband massacre and a series of sectarian killings. A number of sources have claimed he was an RUC Special Branch agent.
Human rights group the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), along with the families of those killed, have stated their belief that the killings were part of a string of attacks carried out by the “Glenanne gang”. This gang included members of the SPG, UDR and loyalist paramilitaries (in particular the UVF’s Mid-Ulster Brigade) under the command of British military intelligence and/or the RUC’s Special Branch. The PFC further alleges that the killings were part of “a security-force-inspired ‘dirty war’ aimed at terrorising the Catholic/Nationalist community into isolating the IRA,” and were “intended to provoke a bloody and ever escalating response”. This would allow much tougher security measures to be put in place.
A group calling itself the “South Armagh Republican Action Force” retaliated the next day by shooting dead ten Protestant men in the Kingsmill massacre. In 1999, Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley stated in the House of Commons that Eugene Reavey “set up the Kingsmill massacre”. In 2010, a report by the Historical Enquiries Team cleared Eugene of any involvement. The Reavey family have since been seeking an apology.
Two days after the Kingsmill massacre, the British Government announced that the Special Air Service (SAS) was being moved into the South Armagh area. This was the first time that SAS presence in Northern Ireland was officially acknowledged. The whole of County Armagh was also declared to be a “Special Emergency Area.”.
Photo: A rural road at Greyhillan (near Whitecross), where the Reavey shootings took place.