‘He chose a different route’: Centenarian Troubles survivor Barney O’Dowd laid to rest (2024)

An unlikely centenarian was laid to rest in Co Meath on Monday, a few weeks shy of his 101st birthday.

Barney O’Dowd, a survivor of one of the Troubles’ worst atrocities, “achieved his own justice”, mourners at St Mary’s Church in Navan were told, “by outliving the forces that had sought to destroy him and his family”.

While much media attention has been paid to the recent deaths of political players in the conflict and the peace process, Mr O’Dowd’s death is a reminder that the long tail of Troubles-related trauma still affects generations of victims and their families, all too often forgotten by a society which, in turning its back on violence, often turned its back on victims too.

‘He chose a different route’: Centenarian Troubles survivor Barney O’Dowd laid to rest (1)

Mr O’Dowd, a milkman, was gravely wounded in a sectarian loyalist gun attack on a family gathering at his farmhouse in Ballydougan, near Gilford, Co Down, on January 4th, 1976. His sons, Barry (24) and Declan (19), and brother Joe (61) were murdered in the incident.


A co-ordinated loyalist attack that same evening in Whitecross, Co Armagh, claimed the lives of brothers John, Brian and Anthony Reavey. The next day, 10 Protestant workers were shot dead in retaliation by the IRA at nearby Kingsmill. Mr O’Dowd and Alan Black, the sole survivor of the Kingsmill massacre, struck up an unlikely friendship after meeting at a victims’ forum.

[President and police chief salute centenary of man who survived notorious Troubles atrocity]

Mr O’Dowd was buried at Mountown cemetery, in the shadow of an old ruined church, reunited with his late wife, Kathleen, and his two murdered sons, whose plot he had lovingly tended well into his 10th decade.

The O’Dowd family moved south of the Border to Co Meath after the murders and when Ms O’Dowd died in 1999, Barney and his surviving children decided to reinter Declan and Barry beside her.

[A ghost estate and an empty grave: ‘I don’t think Northern Ireland was worth one life’]

Fr Martin McErlean, who celebrated the funeral Mass, told mourners he had worked with Mr O’Dowd’s son, Barry, on Shetland and they had been due to fly back together the day after the party at which he was murdered.

Delivering the eulogy, he said: “One of Barney’s grandchildren remarked that a life lesson he learned from him was not to hold hatred in his heart. Barney had every reason to be consumed by bitterness for those who murdered his nearest and dearest. He chose a different route.”

Mr O’Dowd was, he went on, “a singular man who refused to let tragedy loosen his grip on life or to define him as a person”.

“Anyone who met Barney will know his firm handshake, his iron-like grip that threatened to incapacitate the limp-handed. But Barney had another grip – a grip on life itself and all it could offer. He had a grip on politics, a grip on morals, on family, on the difference between right and wrong, on the belief that understanding must win out over hatred.”

[Dirty Linen: a personal history of Northern Ireland]

[Why I wrote Dirty Linen: recording the toll the Troubles took on my parish, the long tail of trauma]

Fr McErlean recounted how Mr O’Dowd and his brothers had grown up in the fledgling northern state, which was designed to maintain a unionist ascendancy in which Catholics knew – and were expected to keep – their place.

But Mr O’Dowd had embraced the civil rights movement – his membership card was framed beside his coffin – “seeing it as an avenue to a more open, democratic, accepting society where Catholics would enjoy the same, equal rights as Protestants: access to good housing; the prospect of better paid, more secure employment. Parity of esteem irrespective of political or religious affiliation beckoned, but failed to materialise.”

‘He chose a different route’: Centenarian Troubles survivor Barney O’Dowd laid to rest (5)
‘He chose a different route’: Centenarian Troubles survivor Barney O’Dowd laid to rest (6)

Michael Toman, who was 19 when his father Joe (47) was one of three Catholics murdered by loyalists in Bleary Darts Club on April 27th, 1975, a mile from the O’Dowds’ former farmhouse, made the journey south to pay his respects. The chief suspect in both triple murders was Robin Jackson, a UDR soldier turned UVF commander, a serial killer whose alleged role as a British agent resulted recently in two large out-of-court settlements.

No one was ever charged but a years-long inquiry led until recently by PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher is expected to shed new light on the extent of collusion between loyalists and British security forces. Mr Toman grew tearful as he spoke of the looming anniversary. “The loss is still there,” he said.

Mr O’Dowd is survived by his children Mary, Noel, Loughlin, Ronan, Eleanor and Cathal, 18 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

‘He chose a different route’: Centenarian Troubles survivor Barney O’Dowd laid to rest (2024)
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