SOUTH Antrim MLA Steve Aiken has cast his mind back to the scorching summer of 1976 when the dark shadow of paramilitary terror fell over a family run business near his home.
This week marked the 46th anniversary of a grisly triple murder at Walker’s Bar on the outskirts of Templepatrick.
Ulster may have been baking in tropical temperatures but for the people crammed in for a cabaret show that night thoughts of 1976 do not evoke warm memories of deep tans and paddling pools. Instead they see coffins, yawning graves and empty chairs.
Mindless hate, not endless drought, have left an indelible mark,
1972 may have seen the highest death toll during the Troubles, with a staggering 497 deaths, but for the Borough of Antrim 1976 saw the bloodshed escalate to terrifying new heights. In total 11 people would perish in that unimaginably grim 12-month spell.
And the attack on the Protestant-owned Walker’s Bar sparked the lion’s share of those senseless murders.
The catalyst for much of the heartbreak came on June 25 when the IRA decided to leave the killing fields of Belfast to mount an assault on an altogether softer target on the Lylehill Road.
It was a Friday night. The heatwave had been good for business and the mood was upbeat - until the door was flung open and three men burst in.
One shouted ‘to hell with youse’ before they sprayed the lounge with automatic fire.
Three people fell after the first burst, but the gunmen kept on firing. Customers dived for cover, but a number were injured as bullets ricocheted around the room.
For good measure they lobbed a bomb into the thickening fog of cordite smoke.
Thankfully the device failed to explode, but as the screams of pain gave way to ters of relief it was clear that lives had been lost in the heaving mass of blood and bone.
Three Protestants - Ruby Kidd (28), Francis Walker (17) and Joseph McBride (56) - were later declared dead.
Tragically all three victim were related. Ruby was the owner’s daughter, Francis her brother and Joseph their cousin.
The nakedly sectarian slayings sent shockwaves through the community - and soon the UVF were plotting where and when to exact their own chilling revenge. It was eventually decided that they would ‘fight fire with fire’ by mounting a copycat attack of their own - at the Ramble Inn on the outskirts of Antrim..
After the events o f the previous week people were justifiably nervous about venturing out to the pubs, but many were equally determined that the men of violence could not win. Normal life had to go on.
Business was brisk at the Ramble on Friday July 2 and though it was Catholic owned, the clientele was mixed.
The craic was reportedly good, if somewhat muted, but the laughter died when two masked men entered the bar shortly before closing time.
One was armed with a pistol and the other a sub-machinegun - and both began blasting indiscriminately at the cowering customers.
Four people died at the scene including Frank Scott (73), from Antrim; Oliver Woulahan, who was celebrating his 20th birthday; James McCallion (39), who threw himself on top of his wife to shield her; and local man Ernest Moore (43).
Two more men died later - James Francey (49), from the Lisnevenagh Road in Antrim and 27-year-old Joseph Ellis.
All but one of the victims were Protestant.
The car the killers had used had been hijacked near Tardree. A three-man UVF unit consisting of a driver and two gunmen bound and gagged the owners before disappearing into the night.
The vehicle was later dumped in Templepatrick, near the scene of the earlier outrage.
ANKLE-DEEP IN BLOOD
A police officer who attended the scene said it was among the most harrowing of his long career. The floor at the Ramble was not even, and as he crossed the bar he realised that he was standing ankle-deep in blood.
The Coroner said the loss of nine local lives in a week had united local people in sorrow - despite the best efforts of the paramilitary death squads to drive a wedge between them.
“This was horrific, cold-blooded, terrible slaughter,” he said at the Inquest.
A relative of one of the victims later said: “The strong contention remains that it was the one of the main Protestant paramilitary groups and that they remained silent when it transpired that most of the victims came from the Protestant community.”
In the weeks that followed a number of people were interviewed by police in relation to the shooting but were subsequently released without charge
In 2012 the Historical Enquiries Team, a body which had been set up in Northern Ireland to re-investigate unsolved murders of the Troubles, met with the family of James McCallion to deliver their findings.
The probe concluded that the RUC had conducted a thorough investigation and the detectives working on the case did their best to bring the killers to justice. To date no-one has been convicted.
The slow passage of time may have healed the open wounds, but for many the agony of loss has cut so deep that the scars may never fade. And nor would they want them too.
Others not directly involved still remember those dreadful days vividly.
Among them is former Labour MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey.
She may have lived and worked in England, but she was born and raised in Mallusk - and this week she recalled the impact that the attack had on her.
“This atrocity was particularly poignant to me as I was at Lylehill Primary School with Ruby and her other siblings,” she said.
“[It took place] at a small country pub near the school. Lest we forget.”
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken never has.
“I used to live close by,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful and quiet spot, desecrated like so many other places by the horror of IRA and other sectarian hatred.
“Can’t understand why Mary Lou McDonald still ‘reveres’ the murderous republican campaign.”
But the local rep’s comments sparked a backlash on social media.
“Do you revere the British forces, despite the many horrors down the years?” wrote one.
“Personally I detest all terror regardless of the perpetrator, however this one-sided rhetoric from your ivory tower is pathetic.”