Geraldine O'Reilly (15) and Patrick Stanley (16) were killed in the blast.

“A night like no other...”

The late Maureen Lawlor was at home above the butchers shop on the corner of the Diamond, busying herself putting kids to bed, when the bomb went off less than 100 metres away at 10.28pm on December 28, 1972. She’d heard the “unmerciful” bang and now, at her door, came panicked screams for help. Despite their immediate and stricken appearance, she still recognised Peter and Mary Little, two teenagers from nearby St Mary’s Terrace.

Mary had suffered severe burns to her legs and body, and Peter’s legs were littered with shrapnel. They were home on holiday from Manchester and had just left Slowey’s chip shop when “what felt like a whoosh from behind us knocked us off our feet,” recalls Peter. “We were level with the post office door, but ended up 10 or 20 feet nearer the town hall. I could hear Mary shouting and crying ‘Peter, Peter, Peter’. When I got to her the clothes were near burned off her.”

Peter was 18 and Mary a year younger. He was unaware of just how badly damaged his leg was until someone pointed it out. Only then did the pain hit him.

“[Mrs Lawlor] had a blanket for us, and another lad, Patrick Donnelly, came along and he lifted my sister inside.”

Maureen’s son Mark Lawlor was eight at the time. He remembers peering down around the hard wood banister of the stairs to see their home transformed into a makeshift field hospital.

“There was Mary Little lying on the floor and Peter was being carried through to the living room.”

Mark had been in bed, upstairs with his brother Barry, when the bomb, planted by Loyalist paramilitaries, exploded.

“A second or two after” the glass shattered and “we tore out of the room”.

Outside the front doorway he describes seeing fallen wires fizzing with electricity “dancing on the road”.

“The place was just chaos. The next morning I remember an ojus panic still about, and the smell of cars smouldering in the street.”

At the same time Paddy O’Reilly had to come to and was out on the street. A hardened veteran of the football pitch, he’d been pounded backwards when the large sheet glass windows fronting his street side garage caved in.

“I’d been at the window, thinking about closing up, when all of a sudden the glass blew back into my face. The tyre of Noel Donohoe’s car was burning outside the petrol pumps. There was glass and smoke everywhere. The whole street was on fire.”

Standing in her mother’s Bridge Street kitchen was Eileen McCaul Egan. She was “waiting for a boyfriend” to call, his tardiness made her ever more impatient. Earlier 16-year-old Eileen had opened the door of her mother’s guesthouse to a boy her same age and Offaly businessman, Pat Jennings.

The Calor Gas delivery lorry they’d been using had engine trouble. They parked it at The Diamond and sought lodgings nearby.

The boy, Patrick Stanley, wanted to call his parents. He needed to tell them he wouldn’t be home.

Taking over from her mother who was ill in bed, Eileen sent the boy to Bennett’s on the hill opposite the convent gates. They told the young Patrick to use the public phone kiosk on Main Street as the queue for the payphone in the hallway was too long.

Determined “not to be stood up”, Eileen had been fixing to leave and go “up town” herself when the blast occurred.

“I was looking at the clock and it was 26 minutes past and I wanted to go. I was saying to myself ‘I’m not going to be here when he comes’. But my feet felt stuck to the ground.”

Initially Eileen thought an aeroplane had “landed” on the roof.

“The house shook; the lights went on and off, and when I went outside there was glass and bits of everything still falling from the sky like snowflakes.”

Main Street, she remembers, was sheer “pandemonium”.

“I ran through the crowd, they wouldn’t let me past but I burst through them,” says Eileen, panicking for fear her boyfriend might have been among the injured. “It was then I saw Patrick.”

There was the briefest of moments before she realised just whose body it was.

“There was a local fella trying to resuscitate him. He’d taken his hanky out and placed it over Patrick’s mouth. But it was too late. I can still see the colour of red on that hanky.”

With the help of another man, Paddy Reilly from the garage helped move Patrick’s body from the wreckage of the phone box. At this point, Maureen Lawlor, a woman held together by unwavering faith, delivered the Act of Contrition in the silent teenager’s ear.

Eileen becomes emotional. “I knew who it was after the [Calor lorry] driver took off his coat off and put it over him. I remember just running and screaming after that. There wasn’t much for counselling back then. You were just told to get on with it.”

Eileen says for months after the bombing she’d get upset. Another victim, 15-year-old Geraldine O’Reilly, lived just “across the bridge” in the neighbouring parish of Drumlane. She was a “school pal” of Eileen’s. “I use to walk Geraldine out the road. A lovely girl, full of laughter, full of fun, had all her life in front of her as Paddy did. She would have liked to have met somebody she’d say to me, if she could get to the dances as you’d do.”

Geraldine was the youngest of a family of eight and a talented Irish dancer. She’d completed her Group Certificate examination the previous June, earning six honours and longed to one day take up a career in nursing and see where in the world that might take her.

Geraldine had come to town with her older brother Anthony. The pair were as close as siblings could get.

Chips from Slowey’s was considered a treat, and Geraldine was still waiting to be served by Peggy McCormack behind the counter when the no-warning bomb, concealed in a stolen red Ford Escort and parked directly opposite, exploded outside McGowan’s Drapery and Farrelly’s Bar.

Moments before, the pub was hushed after the wooden boxed television perched above the liquor-filled counter flickered through a report of an explosion in nearby Clones, Co Monaghan, less than 30 minutes before.

Geraldine, on her school Christmas holidays, died instantly in the bomb that went off in Belturbet. So too did Patrick, who had the handset of the phone in his hand as he waited for the operator on the other end of the line to connect him to his family home in Clara, Co Offaly.

Geraldine’s brother Anthony, double-parked a few feet away, miraculously survived the blast. As her body was pulled from the rubble, he lay unconscious in the wreckage of his car.

Anthony later had the harrowing responsibility of having to identify his sister’s body.

From his family home at Sugarloaf, three miles west of Belturbet, retired Celt journalist Sean McMahon heard the bomb explosion “clear as day”.

Standing outside he could see the flames rise; their menacing redness blistered the dark rural night sky.

Sean was a freelance journalist at the time, and was called upon to file copy for the next day’s edition of The Irish Press. “No one believed it could’ve been a bomb that night,” he recalls. “When people did sort of realise, the fear then was there could have been a second.”

When Sean returned the following morning, camera crews from around the world had begun to gather, focusing their lens on Belturbet’s Main Street.

“David Chater was one of the reporters there. I’ll always remember hearing him say ‘Belturbet, Cavan, southern Eire’. You were used to seeing that sign-off from war torn areas and now here he was in Belturbet.”

Reports estimate the cost of damage caused at around £200,000.

Twenty-three houses on Main Street, 13 on The Diamond, and 18 more on Bridge Street were damaged. Others on Holborn Hill, The Lawn and Banker’s Lane were less seriously damaged but still hit with the force.

Fourteen cars were also mangled by the blast, while pieces of the suspected bomb car were recovered from a 100-yard radius.

Along with the dead more than half a dozen were left injured. The wounds suffered run as deep physically as they did emotionally and psychologically. Retired Bishop of Kilmore, Leo O’Reilly, a native of Kill near Cootehill, moved to Kilconny, Belturbet to live with his family in his teenage years. He’d graduated for the priesthood years earlier, and at the time was teaching at St Patrick’s College. When he next returned to Belturbet after the bombing he says it was a “changed” town.

It was a change that would remain “for years to come”.

Slowey’s and Farrelly’s bar, both damaged, never reopened.

A temporary bailey bridge across the Woodford Canal at Aghalane, opened just before Christmas following repairs commissioned by Cavan County Council, was not replaced. The political will, so fervent in the past, quietened.

The 100-year-old border crossing was rendered impassable by a Loyalist planned explosion in November. The following January, after the Belturbet bombing occurred, a third explosion by the British Army finished the bridge off completely.

The first Garda investigation into the Belturbet bombing lasted just four weeks, before a clip was placed on the file and placed in storage.

The renewed investigation announced back in October 2022 will be the seventh such review, including Justice Henry Barron’s examination of all cross-border attacks that resulted in fatalities in the 1970s.

“[The bombing] damaged the town, damaged the reputation of it as a safe place to go,” remarks Bishop Leo looking back at how Belturbet’s natural hinterland was severed.

Six murders committed in South Fermanagh - Tom and Emily Bullock at Aghalane, Robin Bell in Newtownbutler, Michael Naan and Andrew Murray in Aughnahinch, and butcher Louis Leonard in Derrylin - leading up to the bombing also took their toll.

Then there was the burning of a bus belonging to English fishermen near Ballinamore. Confidence as much as anything was left shattered.

Mark Lawlor, now a local auctioneer and undertaker in Belturbet, agrees that anyone walking through Belturbet could cross paths with someone there the night of the bombing, or even impacted by what happened, without ever realising. “It was an awful thing for people to go through, a night like no other.”

Few in Belturbet have ever forgotten what happened that fateful night. The scars on Peter Little’s legs are a near daily reminder of how, by some twist of fate, he is still here.

Peter knows the Reilly family, but not until the commemoration had he met Patrick Stanley’s. It was an “emotional” encounter.

“I always wanted to tell them how sorry I was [Patrick] died. Me and Mary, thank god, we got to live our lives. It’s sad. I’m here with my grandchildren now, so thankful for that, same with Mary, but here were two young children, Patrick and Geraldine, they never got that chance. Their lives will always be ‘what ifs’.”