Excerpt taken from beyond the silence published by Guildhall Press
At 6.00pm, I got the phone call to say John was shot dead. It was a priest who rang me. ‘Are you Mrs Toland?’ he asked, ‘John’s been shot – he’s dead.’ I thought someone was having me on. Our Danny was upstairs doing his homework at the time, and he flew past me in the hall in his bare feet and ran out the door to the cathedral, beating on the parochial house door until Bishop Daly came out. Danny told him his father had been shot, ‘My mother needs a priest,’ so Bishop Daly ran over.
When I talk about it now, I go right back to that very night and live every minute over again. Fr Neil Carlin came, too, and he went away to phone to find out if it was true. He confirmed that John was dead. They’d shot the face off him. They had walked up to the bar counter and asked him, ‘Are you John Toland?’ ‘I sure am,’ my John said, and they just riddled him with bullets.
They shot him in the neck and blew the roof out of his mouth, they shot him in the stomach, which got his kidneys, the lot, and then a third time in his chest, too. He was destroyed, shot to bits. He was only thirty-six. If I had been there that night, God knows what would have happened. Both of us could have been shot, and then who would have looked after our wains?
The lights went out in the village after they shot John – and so the car was able to speed out and away and nobody saw anything or knew anything. Eleven people were drinking in the bar that night, yet nobody saw a thing. Did nobody notice these unmasked men coming in with guns? It was as if John was a nobody, that’s how I felt.
Our house died. It was always filled with craic, life and laughter, but it became empty. We were like shells of people. Danny became the man of the house, and all the children took on a role and became responsible. They had to grow up fast. I lined all the children up after John was buried, and warned them, ‘If one of you ever join an organisation and get into bother, it’ll be the death of me.’
None of them did, thankfully. I’m sure they struggled, but nobody took it further. They listened to me.
John’s mammy went to pieces, and she died soon after. His death had a ripple effect, and that ripple doesn’t stop. His brother went into the River Foyle a few years later. I thought about killing myself, too, in the weeks after John died. Then I thought about my wains, and who would take care of them, and I got hold of my senses. That was the biggest hurdle I had to get over in my life. I can talk about things and reminisce now, but I was a useless wreck back then. Everything was a hurdle that I had to get over.
I remember after John died, my children became unkempt. I didn’t even iron their clothes anymore. Until one day, my sister told me off, and said that John would turn in his grave if he saw how I was sending the wains out – that I was acting like a lazy loafer. I wanted to reach for her, but from that day on, my children went out with their shoes polished and their clothes smoothed.