Village murder was an arrow through the heart of Ireland

20 January 2004

Irish News journalist Seamus McKinney was in Bellaghy the day after Sean Brown was killed and recalls a community in shock.

The day Sean Brown was murdered was one of those days when the troubles spilled over into Kerry, Cork, Galway, Meath.

Sean Brown, right, was shot dead doing what hundreds of men were doing on that same balmy summer's night. He was closing up the GAA ground after a club meeting.

That, and the fact that the Browns of Bellaghy were so well known, drove the horror and shock of his murder into every parish in Ireland where Gaelic football was played.

The response to his death was clear from the moment news of the murder emerged. Small groups of silent men and women stood outside the door of his Castle Street home.

The bright sunny weather and the smell of fresh cut grass that morning contrasted sharply with the palpable shock evident in Bellaghy and throughout south Derry.

As the day wore on, figures from the world of GAA trooped up to his door. From presidents, to big county players, to officials from the smallest clubs, it was clear Sean Brown's murder was an arrow through Ireland's heart.

The impact of his brutal death was poignantly recorded by Seamus Heaney. A native of Bellaghy, he was in Greece at the time of the killing, but penned a tribute to the GAA man whose murder he described as a

"crime against the ancient Olympic spirit".

The poet wrote of the loss of

"a man of integrity and goodwill, he represented something better than we have grown used to...."

Bellaghy is a small village by-passed by all the main roads. Its great claim to fame is that it has produced some of the greatest Gaelic footballers in Ireland down through the years.

In every county Bellaghy is known through the exploits of its All Ireland (club and county) winning players. The town breathes for Gaelic football. Sean Brown, as club chairman was, in some ways, head of the town.

In the late 1990s, Bellaghy's reputation as a centre of GAA excellence was overlooked for a brief period as the town hit the headlines when its nationalist majority objected to loyal order marches.

There were a number of bitter and violent rows, as police and residents clashed over re-routed or enforced parades.

But as early as the summer of 1997 - while media, protesters, marchers and police gathered for the annual parade stand-offs - there were already murmurs of discontent in Bellaghy over the pace of the police investigation into Sean Brown's death.

Within one week of his killing, local people were pointing out that his final terrifying journey must have been picked up by CCTV cameras at Toome police station.

Later, the Irish News received frequent calls from people in south Derry detailing arrests which it was thought were being made in relation to the murder. When these claims were checked, police said there was nothing to them. But the people of Bellaghy found it difficult to believe. At Sean Brown's funeral, a poem from a 12-year-old Protestant neighbour was read out. The youngster wrote of her pain at his death and recalled the kindness of the man who greeted her daily with the words: "Hello Fiona, how was school today?"