John Dougal, one of the children murdered in The Ballymurphy Massacre:
John Dougal 16 years, Springhill Avenue, Ballymurphy, west Belfast, shot dead in Springhill housing estate on 9 July 1972, by members of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment. A short time after John’s death soldiers firing from the same positions shot dead Margaret Gargan (13), Father Noel Fitzpatrick (a Catholic priest), Patrick Butler (38) and David McCafferty (14). Several others were also serious injured. Subsequently the tragedy became know as “Springhill massacre”.
John Dougal was the oldest of a family with eight children. He attended St Gabriel’s primary School and St Peter’s Secondary school. After leaving school he started work in a local betting shop.
Mrs Dougal said her son ‘was a real happy go lucky boy and world’s biggest smooch. He could wrap me around his little finger. I use to worry terribly about him not going to Mass and this played constantly on my mind after John died. I went to Father Donnelly about it, and he had told me that he had given John the Last Rites, knowing how John had died and having received his last confession, I am assured he rests with God.’
In the early evening of 9 July 1972 a ceasefire between the IRA and British Government, in place since the end of June 1972, ended. The events which caused it’s ending began in the Lenadoon housing estate, also in west Belfast, during the day after a large force of British soldiers prevented a number of Catholic families from moving their furniture into new homes on the estate. The Ulster Defence Association, a unionist paramilitary grouping, had previously threatened violence if Catholic families were allowed to take up residence in the lower part of the estate, which they saw as their territory. The British Army responded to the UDA threat by placing barbed wire entanglements, armoured cars and hundreds of troops around the area in Lenadoon where the Catholic families had been allocated homes. When the families approached the British Army cordon scuffles broke, and an armoured car rammed a lorry carrying the belongings of one family. The situation quickly escalated with soldiers firing scores of rubber bullets. Within minutes a full-scale riot had erupted with running battles between British troops and local residents. The IRA, apparently failing to resolve the situation with the British authorities, engaged the British troops with small arms fire. As the gun-battle intensified IRA volunteers from other parts of the city close to the Lenadoon area arrived in the district to bolster the local IRA Company. The firefight continued late into the evening.
While the fighting in Lenadoon raged other nationalist/republican areas in Belfast remained relatively quiet until around 9pm, when without provocation or warning several British Army snipers in positions in a timber yard overlooking the Springhill area of Greater Ballymurphy opened indiscriminate gunfire on residents moving about the area. John Dougal was the sniper’s first fatally, shot as he attempted to rescue another youth, shot and wounded moments earlier. The second victim killed was Margaret Gargan, who was shot as she stood talking to girlfriends. The third fatality was Father Noel Fitzpatrick, who had been brought to the scene by Patrick Butler and David McCafferty to give the last Rites to an injured man. The latter three victims were approaching the scene near where John Dougal was shot when a sniper fired a single bullet, which penetrated Fr. Fitzpatrick head before entering the body of Patrick Butler, killing both men instantly. Young David McCafferty was shot dead as he tried to pull Fr. Fitzpatrick to his feet. The snipers also seriously injured several others. The sniping into the area continued for some hours.
As stated, there had been no trouble in the Ballymurphy area before the British Army snipers opened fire, the majority of IRA officers from area being in Lenadoon at the time of the assault. Hearing of the attack the IRA officers returned to Ballymurphy and promptly engaged the snipers in the timber yard. A fierce gun-battle then erupted, lasting into the early hours of 10 July.
The British Army Press Office in a statement issued later distorted the sequence of events by detailing the killings had occurred during the gun-battle between the IRA and British soldiers and not sometime beforehand. They also claimed their soldiers had hit six gunmen.
The sequence of events set out in the statement and claims to have shot gunmen were rubbished by those injured and residents.
In the 1990s relatives of those killed and injured in Ballymurphy on the evening of 9 July 1972 produced a small booklet, ‘The Springhill Massacre’ to highlight their case. John Dougal’s mother, and other witnesses to his shooting told their stories in the booklet.
Mrs Dougal said that on the day of the shooting John had been arguing with his sister and she had shouted to him to go to his room. She said after he was ordered to his room John was not allowed out by his father, but he got out by climbing out an upstairs window. ‘That was the last I seen him. My husband went out but could not find him so he had to go to work.’
Brian Pettigrew said he had been in his house with John Dougal when about 9.30pm they went out to buy cigarettes. On their way to the shop they heard shooting and cries for help. They discovered a young man had been shot in the head and was lying in a car in Westrock Drive. A youth kneeling beside the wounded man was shouting for help. As John and his friend approached the wounded man to offer help British soldiers positioned on the roof of a nearby timber factory fired on them.
Brian Pettigrew described the situation; ‘I was hit on the arm and my mate John Dougal and me ran back towards our house. The Brits kept shooting at us. I was shot again. I was hit a number of times in the back. My mate John was shot and fell to the ground. I managed to get back to our house. My father was looking out through the kitchen window. He ran out to help me into the house. I was bleeding very heavily. My father used a towel to try to stop the bleeding. I was lying on the floor and my father was beside me when our John came into the living room. I asked him about John Dougal. He told me he was lying in the garden next to ours and he had tried to get to him several times but it was impossible as the shooting was continuos. About half an hour after I was shot our house was packed with people, friends and neighbours. Hearing I was shot they made their way over to see if they could help. At this stage there was a full scale gun-battle raging. I couldn’t believe that so many people would risk their own lives to help me. The courage they showed was unbelievable.
The gun battle raged so fiercely that an ambulance could not get into our street. My father and some other people who were in our house knocked a hole through the bedroom wall leading into the house next door. I was carried through the hole in the wall into the next-door neighbour’s house on a makeshift stretcher. They carried me out into an entry at the back of the bungalows, down the entry and into Whiterock Gardens. I was put into an ambulance and taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital.
It was only after a couple of hours that residents managed to get John Dougal and carry him into our house, but he was already dead.’
The inquest into John Dougal and the four others killed along with him was held in July 1973. Most of the soldiers involved in the shootings did not attend the hearing. A military representative read out all their statements, the soldiers being identified only by a letter of the alphabet.
Soldier ‘A’ in his statement said he had been a member of a ‘Quick Reaction Section’ consisting of seven men that had been deployed in fortified posts in Corry’s Timber Yard ‘to observe and return fire at any target identified as a gunman.’ He said it was a bright clear evening and visibility was good. Around 8.30pm he claimed he was fired on by a number of gunmen from various positions in Springhill. Soldier ‘E’ said he fired on these gunmen wounding one of them. Soldiers ‘B’ ‘C’ ‘D’ and ‘F’ in their statements all spoke of observing gunmen running from one position to another and firing on them. Some they claimed to have hit, while others they said fled. However, despite it being such a clear bright night none of the soldiers could identify any other feature about the gunmen other than they were carrying a weapon. All were adamant they had not seen nor shot at any priest.
Although over a dozen civilian witnesses attended the hearing to refute the soldier’s statements, several important witnesses, including some of those wounded, were not called to give evidence.
Forensic evidence supported the relatives and the civilian eyewitnesses account that none of the deceased were armed or in contact with any weapons when shot.
A senior RUC detective admitted to the inquest they had not carried out any investigations into the killings, citing the district as too dangerous to carryout such inquiries.
The jury returned an open verdict.
Mrs Dougal said that she did not attend the inquest into the killing of her son, but his father did. ‘My husband said there were three British soldiers there. They were called soldiers’ ‘A’ ‘B’ and ‘C’. He asked for their proper names, but they said they could not give them because of security reasons. He wanted to talk to them face to face, to ask them why they shot our son.’
After the hearing she said ‘they never returned their son’s clothing, just a coat. He had a brand new pair of boots and jeans on. His clothes were all brand new. It was when he was lying in the bungalow somebody had managed to get his coat off him. That is the only reason we were able to get his coat. I can’t remember the wee girls name who brought it up to us in a plastic bag. Even after all these years, and as I listen often to the news, and about the inquests into different murders I know through experience with my son John that the Irish people cannot get justice in British courts.’
No British soldiers were ever charged for in connection with the death of John Dougal.