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The East Tyrone Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) was one of the most active republican paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland during "the Troubles". It is believed to have drawn its membership from across the eastern side of County Tyrone as well as north County Monaghan and south County Londonderry.[1]

The east of the county has a long history of militant Republicanism from Tom Clarke, Joseph McGarrity, Liam Kelly, Gerry McGeough, Tommy McKearney, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and Martin Hurson. The IRA's heaviest single loss of life since the 1920s involved the East Tyrone Brigade, when a group of eight volunteers were ambushed and killed by the British Special Air Service (SAS), during an attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) station at Loughgall on 8 May 1987.

Mural commemorating those killed in the Loughgall Ambush


Lynagh's strategy

In the 1980s, the IRA in East Tyrone and other areas close to the border, such as South Armagh, were following a Maoist military theory devised for Ireland by Jim Lynagh, the leader of the IRA in east Tyrone (but a native of County Monaghan). The theory involved creating "zones of liberation" that the security forces of Northern Ireland did not control and gradually expanding them to make the country ungovernable. Lynagh's strategy was to start off with one area which the British military did not control, preferably a republican stronghold such as east Tyrone. The South Armagh area was considered to be a liberated zone already, since British troops and the RUC could not use the roads there for fear of roadside bombs and snipers. Thus it was from there that the IRA East Tyrone Brigade attacks were launched, with most of them occurring in east Tyrone in areas close to south Armagh, which offered good escape routes. The first phase of Lynagh's plan to drive out the British security forces from east Tyrone involved destroying isolated rural police stations and then intimidating or killing any building contractors who were employed to rebuild them.

Previous attacks

The East Tyrone Brigade had previously carried out two attacks on RUC bases in east Tyrone, described by author Mark Urban as "spectaculars".[2] The first was an attack on Ballygawley barracks. The second attack was on the Birches barracks and it began by driving a JCB digger with a 200 lb (91 kg) bomb in its bucket through the reinforced fences the RUC had in place around their bases, and then exploding the bomb and raking the police station with gunfire. On these two occasions the stations were destroyed, and most or all of the occupants killed. It was therefore with some confidence that the IRA tried the same tactics on the unmanned Loughgall RUC station on 8 May 1987.[3][4]

The Loughgall ambush

Loughgall Ambush
Part of The Troubles
Date 8 May 1987
Location Loughgall, County Armagh
Result Successful SAS ambush; RUC base heavily damaged by IRA bomb
Flag of Ireland.svg Provisional Irish Republican Army
(East Tyrone Brigade)
United Kingdom Special Air Service
Patrick Joseph Kelly Unknown
8 volunteers 25 soldiers
Casualties and losses
8 dead none
1 civilian killed and 1 wounded by the SAS

The SAS, however, had set a trap to destroy the unit. They had placed an SAS soldier inside the station, and deployed a squad of 24 soldiers split into six groups around the station building. It has been alleged, but never proved, that the RUC had an informer in the IRA group, and that he was killed by the SAS in the ambush.[5] However, in his book Big Boys' Rules Mark Urban points to the fact that an Ardboe woman, Colette O'Neill, was abducted by the IRA several weeks later, and he hypothesises that she may have been the informer.[6] However she denied this and was released alive.

Just after 7:00 p.m. on 8 May 1987, Declan Arthurs drove the JCB carrying the bomb through the perimeter fence of the RUC station. The van carrying the rest of the IRA unit pulled up and they jumped out and opened fire on the station. The IRA just managed to detonate its 200 lb (90 kg) bomb, heavily damaging the police station, before the SAS opened fire.

The SAS riddled the JCB and the van with bullets. In addition, the car of passer-by Anthony Hughes was fired on by the SAS. Hughes, 36, was killed and his brother badly wounded. [7] Subsequent security forces statements said with regret that they had been innocent passers-by caught in crossfire. All eight IRA members were killed, all from head wounds.[8] The soldiers fired more than 600 rounds; the IRA men fired 70 rounds but did not hit any of the soldiers.[9] It was later alleged that one of the dead men was in fact an informant for the RUC, although this was denied by security sources, who claimed that the information on the IRA unit was gained from electronic surveillance.[10]

The authorities recovered eight IRA weapons from the scene – three Heckler & Koch G3 rifles, one FN rifle, two FNC rifles, a Ruger revolver and a Spas-12 shotgun. The Royal Ulster Constabulary linked the guns to 7 murders and 12 attempted murders in the mid Ulster area.[11] One of the guns had been taken from a reserve RUC constable killed two years earlier.[12]

The civilian, Anthony Hughes, who was shot dead by the SAS, had been traveling in a car with his brother, Oliver, unaware of the ambush. Both were wearing blue overalls similar to those sometimes worn by IRA members while engaged in paramilitary activity and so were mistaken for IRA men engaged in the attack.[13] As they attempted to reverse out of the gunfire, SAS troopers positioned nearby mistook them as part of the IRA unit and opened fire. Forty shots were aimed at the car, killing Anthony and wounding his brother. Hughes' widow later received compensation from the British Government for the death of her husband.[14]


Aftermath of the ambush

SAS operations against the IRA continued well into the 1990s. The IRA conducted a long investigation in search of the informer believed to have been in their ranks, although it has been suggested that the informer was killed in the 1987 ambush.

The IRA group became known as the "Loughgall Martyrs" among Republicans, because the men's deaths were considered to be part of a deliberate shoot-to-kill policy by the security forces.[3][15]

Thousands of people attended the funerals of the dead IRA men, the biggest republican funerals in Northern Ireland since those of the IRA hunger strikers of 1981. Gerry Adams in his graveside oration said the British Government understood that it could buy off the government of the Republic of Ireland, which he described as the "shoneen clan" (pro-British), but "it does not understand the Jim Lynaghs, the Pádraig McKearneys or the Séamus McElwaines. It thinks it can defeat them. It never will."[16]

In 2001 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that ten IRA members, including the eight killed at Loughgall, had their human rights violated by the failure of the British government to conduct a proper investigation into the circumstances of their deaths.[8] The court did not make any finding that these deaths amounted to unlawful killing.[17]

Membership of the Loughgall Unit

Eight volunteers of the East Tyrone Brigade were killed at Loughgall in 1987. These were:

  • Patrick Kelly, aged 30, was the commander of the brigade from Carrickfergus in County Antrim.
  • Jim Lynagh, aged 31, was from Monaghan Town. A volunteer since the early 1970s, Lynagh was suspected to have been involved in the 1981 killing of Norman Stronge.
  • Pádraig McKearney, aged 32, had also joined the IRA in the early 1970s and took part in the Maze Prison escape.
  • Declan Arthurs, a 21 year old from the townland of Galbally in Tyrone, who became involved in the republican movement after attending the funeral of hunger striker Martin Hurson. Prior to the Loughgall Ambush, Arthurs had been interned on three occasions.
  • Seamus Donnelly, aged 19, was the youngest to die in the ambush. Donnelly was also from Galbally.
  • Eugene Kelly, a 25 year old who was utilised for his detailed geographical knowledge of rural areas of County Tyrone and Armagh
  • Gerry O'Callaghan, aged 29, had previously been arrested alongside McKearney in 1980 and later took part in the blanket protests.
  • Tony Gormley, aged 25, was also from Galbally where he operated an engineering sub contracting company.


An Irish rebel song was written as a tribute to the IRA members, entitled "Loughall Martyrs". Its lyrics state that the Provisionals were "brave volunteers" and that Lynagh was a "gallant soldier". The SAS are described as "butchers" and are accused of using disproportionate force, as well as not offering the opportunity to surrender. The final verse pays tribute to the eight men by name.

The ambush is alluded to in The Pogues' 1988 song "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six" where the SAS are described as the "whores of the empire".[18]

Subsequent Brigade activity

The SAS ambush had no noticeable long-term effect on the level of IRA activity in East Tyrone. In the two years prior to the Loughgall ambush the IRA killed 7 people in East Tyrone and North Armagh, and 11 in the two years following the ambush.[19] Ed Moloney, Irish journalist and author of the A Secret History of the IRA, states that the brigade lost 53 members killed in the Troubles - the highest of any 'Brigade' area. Of these, 28 were killed between 1987 and 1992.[20]

In August 1988, an SAS ambush killed IRA members Gerard Harte, Martin Harte and Brian Mullin as they tried to kill an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment member.[21] Michael "Pete" Ryan, an alleged top Brigade's member, led an IRA flying column during a large attack on a checkpoint at Derryard, in December 1989. Two British soldiers were killed in action.[22] On 11 February 1990 the brigade managed to shoot down a British Army Lynx helicopter near Clogher by machine gun fire.[23] In October 1990, two more IRA men, Dessie Grew and Martin McCaughey, were shot dead near Loughgall by undercover soldiers. In June 1991, three IRA men, Lawrence McNally, Peter Ryan and Tony Doris, died in another SAS ambush at Coagh, where their car was raked with gunfire. Peter Ryan was the same man who had commanded the mix flying column under direct orders of top IRA Army Council member Slab Murphy two years before.[24][25] The RUC stated the men were on their way to mount an ambush on Protestant workmen.[26]

In January 1992, members killed eight building workers and severely injured another six, with a landmine at Teebane near Omagh. One of the workers killed, Robert Dunseath, was also a member of the Royal Irish Rangers.[27] The men were working to re-build British Army bases damaged by IRA bombs. The men were all Protestants and this was widely perceived as a sectarian attack.[28]

Another four IRA members were killed in February 1992. The four, Peter Clancy, Kevin Barry O'Donnell, Sean O'Farrell and Patrick Vincent, were killed at Clonoe after an attack on the RUC station in Coalisland. Whereas the previous ambushes of IRA men had been well planned by Special Forces, the Clonoe killings owed much to the inexperience of the IRA men in question. They had mounted a heavy DShK machine gun on the back of a stolen lorry, driven to the RUC/British Army station and opened fire with tracer ammunition at the fortified base. They then drove past the house of Tony Doris, the IRA man killed the previous year, where they fired more shots in the air and were heard to shout, "Up the 'RA, that's for Tony Doris". This gave ample time for the Army to respond. The IRA men were intercepted by the Army as they were trying to dump the lorry and escape in cars in the car park of Clonoe Roman Catholic church, whose roof was set on fire by Army flares. Two IRA men got away from the scene, but the four named above were killed. One witness has said that some of the men were wounded and tried to surrender but were then killed by British soldiers.[29]

In addition, the IRA in Tyrone was the target of an assassination campaign carried out by the loyalist paramilitaries of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The UVF killed 40 people in east Tyrone between 1988 and 1994. Of these, most were Catholics civilians with no paramilitary connections but six were Provisional Irish Republican Army members. Three of them were killed in a pub in Cappagh in March 1991. The IRA responded by killing senior UVF man and former UDR member Leslie Dallas.[30][31]

The Fintona RUC/Army base damaged by mortar fire, 27 December 1993

An IRA bomb attack against British Paratroopers, also near Cappagh, during which a soldier lost both legs, triggered a series of clashes between troops and local residents in mid-May 1992. The riots lasted for several days, ending with the paratroopers' assault on three bars, where they injured seven civilians. Another street fracas between a King's Own Scottish Borderers platoon and Republican sympathizers in Coalisland resulted in the theft of an army machine gun, later recovered nearby.[32]

Six Paratroopers were charged with criminal damage in the aftermath, but they were later acquitted.

The brigade was the first to use the Mark 15 Barrack-Buster mortar in an attack on 5 December 1992 against a police station in Ballygawley.[33]

From mid-1992 up to the 1994 cease fire, the brigade was still able to keep pressure on state forces in the region, despite its heavy losses. The East Tyrone Brigade executed a total of eight mortar attacks against state security facilities and was also responsible for at least sixteen bombings and shootings, killing four members of the security forces during the same period.[34]

One prominent member of the brigade, Kevin Mackenna, was 'chief of staff' of the IRA along the 1990s. He later became the longest-serving volunteer in this job, right up to the 1997 cease-fire.[35]

See also


  1. ^ Urban, Mark (1992). Big Boys' Rules. Faber and Faber. pp. 220. ISBN 0-571-16809-4.  
  2. ^ Big Boys' Rules, Mark Urban, Faber and Faber (1992), p. 224, ISBN 0-571-16112-X
  3. ^ a b "SAS shooting 'destroyed deadly IRA unit'". 5 May 2001. Retrieved 2007-09-19.  
  4. ^ Big Boys' Rules, p. 227.
  5. ^ Taylor, Peter (1997). Provos - The IRA & Sinn Féin. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 276. ISBN 0-7475-3818-2.  
  6. ^ Big Boys' Rules, pp. 236-237.
  7. ^ CAIN timeline 1987
  8. ^ a b "IRA deaths: The four shootings". BBC. 4 May 2001. Retrieved 2007-03-11.  
  9. ^ Ted Oliver (5 May 2001). "Infamous IRA gang wiped out by heavily armed SAS". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 2007-03-26.  
  10. ^ Moloney, Ed (2002). A Secret History of the IRA. Penguin Books. pp. 316. ISBN 0-141-01041-X.  
  11. ^ The Long War, Brendan O'Brien (1995) p. 141.
  12. ^ Urban, Mark (1992). Big Boys' Rules. Faber and Faber. pp. 229. ISBN 0-571-16809-4.  
  13. ^ Urban, Mark (1992). Big Boys' Rules. Faber and Faber. pp. 276. ISBN 0-571-16809-4.  
  14. ^ Provos: The IRA and Sinn Féin, Peter Taylor (1997) pg274
  15. ^ "True tale of IRA 'martyrs' revealed". The Guardian. 29 September 2002.,2763,801151,00.html. Retrieved 2007-09-19.  
  16. ^ (Quoted in the Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney, 2002, page 325)
  17. ^ "UK condemned over IRA deaths". BBC. 4 May 2001. Retrieved 2008-10-28.  
  18. ^ "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six". "May the whores of the empire lie awake in their beds, And sweat as they count out the sins on their heads. While over in Ireland eight more men lie dead, Kicked down and shot in the back of the head"  
  19. ^ Urban, Mark (1992). Big Boys' Rules. Faber and Faber. pp. 242. ISBN 0-571-16809-4.  
  20. ^ p. 319, The Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney
  21. ^ DUP slams GAA club IRA commemoration Newshound September 27 2003
  22. ^ p. 333, The Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney
  23. ^ See this British Commons account about the NI violence for the first month of For some details on the helicopter downing, go to this archive page of the New York Times:
  24. ^ p. 313-314, A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney
  25. ^ p. 318, A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney
  26. ^ 1991: IRA men shot dead by British armyBBC news
  27. ^ Palace Barracks Memorial Garden
  28. ^ pp. 219-220, The Long War, Brendan O'Brien
  29. ^ O'Brien, Brendan (1999). The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin. O'Brien Press. pp. 232–235. ISBN 0-86278-606-1.  
  30. ^ p. 322, A Secret History, Ed Moloney
  31. ^ Palace Barracks Memorial Garden
  32. ^ See the May 12 and May 17 entries at the 1992 CAIN chonology:
  33. ^ Ryder, p. 256
  34. ^ UHB, UHB
  35. ^ p. 557, A Secret History, Ed Moloney


  • Brendan O'Brien, The Long War-the IRA and Sinn Féin, O'Brien Press (1999), ISBN 0-86278-606-1.
  • Ed Moloney, Secret History of the IRA, W. W. Norton and Company (2002), ISBN 0-14-101041-X.
  • Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber (1992), ISBN 0-571-16112-X
  • Ryder, Chris: A Special Kind of Courage: 321 EOD Squadron - Battling the Bombers, Methuen, 2005. ISBN 0413772233

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