Kingsmills 40 years on: Heartless ghouls robbed me of close friends

Alan Freeburn, son of victim Robert Freeburn, carries his father's coffin into Kingsmills Presbyterian Church

Alan Freeburn, son of victim Robert Freeburn, carries his father's coffin into Kingsmills Presbyterian Church

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The Kingsmills massacre on January 5, 1976, affected me deeply. Most of the victims were close friends of mine and one of the two survivors, Alan Black, is a second cousin.

Provisional IRA terrorists had struck at the heart of my own community, and in the immediate aftermath, it left me numb with shock and disbelief.

Billy Kennedy heard the news of the Kingsmills massacre while reporting on a meeting of Craigavon Borough Coundil

Billy Kennedy heard the news of the Kingsmills massacre while reporting on a meeting of Craigavon Borough Coundil

As a News Letter reporter and news editor I had covered many of the terrible atrocities of the Troubles, but the Kingsmills atrocity was different.

It was genocide in its most brutal form; totally unjustified for any cause or reason, and my close friends were in the firing line.

I was covering a meeting of Craigavon Borough Council in Portadown Town Hall for the News Letter that night when word began filtering through that there had been a dreadful incident in south Armagh.

Soon, it was being reported to councillors that a works minibus on its way to Bessbrook had been targeted, and there were casualties.

When Bessbrook was mentioned I began to fear the worst and became emotionally upset after making a couple of phone calls (from the kiosk in the town hall) to my parents and friends in the village.

There were multiple deaths, I was told, so I decided the best thing to do was drive to Bessbrook, first calling with my wife in Tandragee to tell her the terrible news.

The scene in Bessbrook on that cold damp January night was surreal; stunned folk were standing in whispered huddles, trying to come to terms with what had happened.

It was a village shrouded in grief, and over that week and in the weeks after it became a community that moved to the top of the international news agenda.

The atrocity occurred four miles away on a normally quiet rural road, but the focus was on Bessbrook, the Quaker model village community where nine of the 10 murdered men lived.

Apart from the minibus driver Robert Walker, I knew them all; they were personal friends.

Joe Lemmon, caretaker of Bessbrook Orange hall, was chaplain of my Orange lodge and Worshipful Master of my Black preceptory. Joe was a genial and humorous big man. Jimmy McWhirter was also in the lodge and preceptory, a decent wee man; brothers Walter and Reggie Chapman were my mates at the Bessbrook Public Elementary School; young Robert Chambers and John McConville (who was going on to be a Christian missionary) and Kenneth Worton, from Loughgilly (who was married to a Bessbrook girl), I also knew. And John Bryans (who was also married to a Bessbrook lady) and Bobby Freeburn were also known to me.

It was a tense, unforgettable week in the homes and on the streets of Bessbrook. A poignant, lasting memory for me was the sight of five coffins being solemnly carried into the Presbyterian Church (my home Meeting House) and three into the nearby Christ Church (Church of Ireland). All friends, mercilessly struck down by heartless ghouls.

This was a major news story I was very close to, but somehow I was able to gather my composure and professional training to send detailed reports on the funerals to the News Letter. Heavy rain persisted on the days of the funerals; “the skies wept in south Armagh” – as I reported.

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