The Omagh Bomb, 24 Years On

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12th August 2022  •  18 min read

At around 3PM on the 15th of August, 1998, a car bomb exploded through the centre of Omagh, Northern Ireland. It was the single biggest terror attack of the Troubles.


The Omagh Bomb, 24 Years On

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It was a busy day in Omagh, a town located in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, on the 15th of August 1998. The town was teeming with shoppers, workers and tourists alike, many of whom were taking advantage of the pleasant summer weather.

At around 3PM, a large explosion blasted through the center of the town. People were thrown to the ground by the blast, as shops collapsed on customers still inside. Glass, metal and brick tore through the crowd as a massive fireball swept from the epicenter. The large explosion had been caused by a car bomb parked on Market Street.

The survivors were all thrown to the ground. As the dust settled and the injured slowly began to make their way to their feet, calls began to flood emergency services. Within minutes, paramedics from Tyrone County Hospital were on the scene. They were horrified by the extent of the damage; there were bodies lying all over the street as the sound of cries and screams emanated in the air.

21 people were killed instantly in the explosion. The blast was so forceful that some were essentially ripped to pieces. Their mangled bodies were indistinguishable from the debris that covered the street. Over 300 people were injured, many of whom were burned in the blast. One witness, Frank Hancock, said: “The carnage, the children, a young baby – pure black, unrecognizable. A young girl down a manhole that we had to pull out. A young lad burning, his hair pure singeing.”

The amount of dead and injured was overwhelming for the emergency services, and buses needed to be commandeered from the nearby Ulster bus station, to transport people to hospital. Some of the victims needed to be transported on makeshift stretchers, made from blasted off doors and shelves from the nearby shops.

Dorothy Boyle, a local, described the gruesome scene: “I saw bodies lying everywhere, dead people being zipped into bags. The bodies were lying there with water running over them from burst pipes. There were limbs lying about that had been blown off people.”1

Army helicopters were transported to the scene to try and assist the emergency services as Omagh’s leisure centre was transformed into an incident centre. News of the bomb quickly spread throughout Northern Ireland and further afield. Concerned family members who couldn’t get in contact with their loved ones scrambled to the incident centre to try and find out information.

The extent of the bomb resulted in a temporary morgue being set up in a British Army base in the town. Eight further people died over the next couple of days.

In the aftermath of the bomb, the Real IRA released a statement in which they took responsibility for the bomb, stating that their targets were “commercial” and that they “did not intent to kill civilians.” Police and the community alike did not agree with their claims, with Northern Ireland Police Chief Ronnie Flanagan stating: “We have had men, women and children slaughtered here this afternoon, slaughtered by murderers who wanted to murder… who gave us a totally inaccurate warning.”

The bomb had come just four months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement sought to end a three-decade conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles. Over the course of those three decades, over 3,500 people lost their lives and there were over 50,000 casualties. The bomb had also coincided with the 29th anniversary of the deployment of British troops in Belfast, a traditional rallying point for IRA supporters. It had also come a handful of weeks before President Clinton was to visit Belfast in support of the historic peace accord.

The real IRA announced that they had carried out the bomb because they were opposed to the peace negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement. They had planted a string of car bombs in Northern Ireland towns throughout 1998 in an attempt to undermine support for the Good Friday Agreement.

An investigation would uncover that on Thursday the 13th of August, a red Vauxhall Cavalier with the registration 91 DL 2554 had been stolen in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, across the border. At around 2PM on the 15th of August, this same vehicle was driven into Market Street in Omagh. The registration plates had been removed and replaced with a fake Northern Ireland registration plate: MDZ 5211. The car was being driven by two men. They parked outside SD Kells clothing shop, before walking away in the direction of Campsie Road.

The Omagh Bomb, 24 Years On
The red Vauxhall Cavalier carrying the bomb.

Around half an hour later, a man phoned the UTV newsroom. He stated: “There’s a bomb, courthouse, Omagh, Main Street, 500lb, explosion 30 minutes.” Before hanging up, the caller gave the codeword “Martha Pope.” This same codeword had been used in the Real IRA’s bombing in Banbridge just two weeks earlier.2 One minute later, UTV received a second phone call. The caller stated: “Bomb, Omagh town, 15 minutes.”

A phone call then came in to the Samaritans charity in Coleraine. The caller said: “Am I through to Omagh? This is a bomb warning. It’s going to go off in 30 minutes.” The caller then said that the bomb was located on Main Street, around 200 yards from the courthouse. Much like the other phone calls, he gave the codeword: “Martha Pope.”

Two of these phone calls were placed from a phone box in Forkhill, south Armagh, while the other one came from a phone box in Newtornhamilton, also located in south Armagh.

As soon as these phone calls were received, UTV and the Samaritans called the Royal Ulster Constabulary control center. The messages were immediately passed on to officers in Omagh who began evacuation operations. The evacuation operations were hampered by the fact that there was no street named “Main Street” in Omagh. The only location identified was the courthouse, which was located at the top of High Street. The courthouse was located on the west end of the town, but the bomb had been planted on the east end of the town.

During evacuation operations, officers cordoned off High Street and began to move shoppers and shop staff down to Market Street as they began their search for the elusive bomb which they believed was somewhere around the courthouse. All of the people who were moved on had moved down toward Market Street, putting them closer to the car bomb.

Twenty minutes after the final phone call, the bomb detonated. Despite 30 years of bombings in Northern Ireland, there was no standard procedure for dealing with bomb threats. The staff in the police control room also did not have a list of recognised codewords, and weren’t sure what “Martha Pope” meant despite the fact it was a known paramilitary codeword.

Over the next couple of days, all of the victims were identified. The final death toll was 31 – 29 men, women and children and unborn twins. The victims were all of different ages, religions and backgrounds. It was the biggest loss of life from any single atrocity in the Troubles.

The Omagh Bomb, 24 Years On
The Victims of the Omagh Bomb.

The victims were identified as:

23-year-old Rocio Abad Ramos. Ramos was from Madrid and was supervising a Spanish-Irish language exchange programme with Buncrana Primary School in County Donegal. She was just one month away from finishing her biology degree. She died when a piece of jagged metal severed her spinal cord.

12-year-old James Barker was described as a “happy boy with an infectious smile.” He was a student at Buncrana Primary School. His mother, Donna Maria Barker, commented that she never noticed how green his eyes were until she had to identify his body in the mortuary. “I knew he had green eyes but I never realised how beautiful they were,” she said.3

12-year-old Sean McLaughlin was a student at Buncrana Primary School. He was a massive Manchester United supporter and he was an altar boy. His parents had given him some money before his trip to Omagh to purchase some goodies.

8-year-old Oran Doherty was killed alongside his friends, James and Sean. He was a student at Buncrana Primary School, and he had been anxious about the trip to Omagh because he got car sick. He was a keen Celtic fan, and was buried wearing the club jersey.

12-year-old Fernando Blasco Baselga was from Madrid, and was in Omagh as part of the language exchange programme. Six year earlier, his father, Manual, had been injured in a terrorist bomb attack in Madrid. His sister, Donna Marie, was also on the excursion and she escaped the explosion with her life but with serious facial injuries. Fernando died when a piece of shrapnel hit his neck.

Ramos and the students had been shopping in Omagh when the bomb detonated. In an instant, they had found themselves victims of a struggle that was not theirs.

43-year-old Geraldine Breslin was working as a shop assistance in Watterson’s drapers. She was married, and according to several witnesses, she was heard calling out for her husband despite her extensive injuries. She had fought fiercely for her life and died eight hours after the blast after suffering multiple injuries and severe internal bleeding.

20-year-old Deborah-Anne Cartwright was working in a beauty salon on the day of the bomb. The beauty salon was near the courthouse, and she had been moved by police down Market Street when the blast detonated. She was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel. She was identified by her hands by her boyfriend of five years, Malcolm Fegan.

18-year-old Gareth Conway had just found out he had gained a place on an engineering course at university when he was killed. His sister was working as a nurse at the Tyrone County Hospital when she learned that he was missing in the aftermath of the bomb.

20-month-old Breda Devine was killed in the blast while in the town with her mother, Tracey Devine, and uncle, Gary McGillion. Tracey survived the blast, but was in a coma for two months. When she awoke, she learned that her daughter had been killed. Breda’s uncle, held her close as she died. He stated: “I could feel her breathing but it was very panicked.” She died just minutes later.

21-year-old Aidan Gallagher was out shopping with a friend in Omagh when he was killed. He worked as a mechanic and had been preparing to emigrate to the United States. A volunteer at the bomb site said: “He turned his head away from me, let out two big sighs and then he was gone.” His father, Michael, treasured the last memory he had of his son: “It was just lovely to remember those last few minutes that he was standing there, just the way you would want him to be.”

36-year-old Sunday school teacher, Esther Gibson, was looking forward to her wedding. She and her fiancé, Kenneth, had been in Omagh to get their engagement portrait. Kenneth survived the blast and later commented: “When they killed her, I died with her.”

30-year-old Avril Monaghan, who was 34 weeks pregnant with twins at the time, her 18-month-old daughter, Maura, and her 66-year-old mother, Mary Grimes, all died in the explosion. They had come to Omagh from an outlying village to do some shopping in celebration of Mary’s birthday. The pathologist who performed Avril’s autopsy said: “It was like looking at two perfectly healthy babies…”

60-year-old Olive Hawkes was out shopping in Omagh when she was killed. She was due to celebrate her ruby wedding anniversary, and was a Methodist church treasurer for 20 years. Her daughter, Mandy, said: “She was foremost a wonderful person who was much loved and needed by her family with an enormous enthusiasm and vitality for life.”

21-year-old Julia Hughes was working in a photography shop in Omagh to make some extra money over the summer. She was a student at Dundee University and was set to return to Scotland the following month to complete her accountancy degree.

17-year-old Brenda Logue was in Omagh with her mother and grandmother. She had ambitions to study leisure and tourism at university. The blast detonated just moments after she left SD Kells clothing shop to see why people were being moved from the courthouse. Her mother searched for her in the rubble: “I could hear a moan but could find nothing,” she said.

17-year-old Jolene Marlow was a talented Gaelic footballer. She was in Omagh with her sister and great aunt when she was killed. On the day of her funeral, she received her A-level results, confirming she had gained a place in university to train as a physiotherapist.

48-year-old Ann McCombe was working as a shop assistance at Watterson’s Drapers in the town. She was on her tea break with her colleague when she was killed by the bomb. She suffered “multiple and severe injuries to almost all parts of the front of her body.” Her husband was in Scotland at the time of the bomb, and he commented that when he heard the news, he “knew in my heart” that Ann was dead.

54-year-old Brian McCrory was in Omagh to purchase paint to redecorate his home when he was killed. His son was helping at the hospital in the aftermath of the bomb, completely unaware that his father was one of the victims. Brian was standing right beside the bomb when it exploded. His body was so mangled in the blast that he needed to be identified from fingerprints that were taken from a crane in his family business.

15-year-old Lorraine Wilson had dreams and ambitions of becoming an air hostess. She was in Omagh on the day of the bombing working for the charity, Oxfam. She had just received her first ever pay packet but never got the chance to open it.

17-year-old Samantha McFarland was killed alongside her best friend, Lorraine. Much like Lorraine, she too had been working part-time in Oxfam. Samantha was studying for her A-levels at Strabane College. She was killed instantly by a piece of shrapnel hitting her head.

39-year-old Philomena Skelton had gone to Omagh with her husband, Kevin, and 13-year-old daughter, Shauna, to buy her a new school uniform. Shauna survived the bomb with a broken jaw.4 Kevin was in the shop next door and searched for his wife after the blast: “I reached for her arm to find her pulse and could find nothing – I knew she was dead.”

61-year-old Sean McGrath died from his injuries three weeks after the explosion. He was a retired baker and a married father of four. That afternoon, he was in Omagh to have a haircut and chat with his old friends, as he often did on Saturday afternoon. He had grown up in Omagh and was described as “one of the loveliest men to ever walk the streets of Omagh.”

16-year-old Alan Radford was a student at Omagh High School. He had been in Omagh that afternoon to help his mother do the weekly grocery shopping. He had been looking forward to start training as a chef. He told his mother, Marion, that the bomb scare was probably a hoax and to not be afraid. Minutes later, he was dead.

57-year-old Elizabeth Rush was a married mother of three. She and her husband, Laurence, had married when they were just teenagers. She was standing at the door of her shop, the Pine Emporium shop, when the bomb exploded, sending her back into the premises. Speaking of the people who planted the bomb, he said: “They haven’t just destroyed my wife, they have destroyed my life.”

56-year-old Veda Short was working as a shop assistant in Watterson’s Drapers. She was on her lunch when she was killed. The mother of four had just seen her grandson earlier that day, hours after he was born. Her son, Ian, heard the blast and rushed to the centre of the town to help; he found his mother’s body lying on a sheet.

27-year-old Bryan White was a qualified horticulturist and was looking forward to starting his new job the next week. He was in Omagh that afternoon with his 65-year-old father, Fred White. Both men were members of the Orange Order. They were buried side by side.5

The bomb sparked an island-wide security crackdown on IRA fractions that refused to accept the Good Friday Agreement. A handful of memorials were held all throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. Shortly before the memorial in Omagh on the 23rd of August, the Irish National Liberation Army announced a ceasefire, ending their 23 year war against British rule in Northern Ireland.6

An investigation into the bomb suggested that it could have been prevented if intelligence services had coordinated better and shared information. Nuala O’Loan, who investigated the bombing while heading the oversight body for Northern Ireland’s police force, initially said she didn’t know whether it could have been prevented, before later stating: “My view now is that it could have been prevented.”

She suggested that RUC officers had ignored previous warnings about a bomb and had failed to act on intelligence. She also said that officers had been uncooperative and defensive during her inquiry into the bomb. Her comments were met with criticism, with Police Service of Northern Ireland chief George Hamilton stating: “Police were not in a position to prevent the Omagh bombing.7

It was later uncovered that the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, had been monitoring phone calls between the bombers as the bomb was being driven into Omagh. The surveillance intelligence was not passed on from GCHQ to special branch in the RUC. Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was killed in the bomb, suggested that no warning was given in advance because the security forces on both sides of the border were more interesting in protecting agents operating inside the Real IRA.8

Over the years, several alleged Real IRA members were investigated, some of whom were convicted as well.

In 2002, Colm Murphy was convicted of conspiracy to cause the explosion. He had been accused of supplying the phones that were used in connection with the bomb. Eight years later, his conviction was overturned after two police officers admitted to rewriting their interrogation notes to remove conflicts of information. Murphy was released a free man.9 

In 2007, Sean Hoey was cleared of the murders. He had been accused of 56 charges, including constructing the power-timer units used during the bomb. The judge commented that the case contained calculated deception by police.10

The in 2014, another man was arrested in connection with the Omagh bomb. Seamus Daly was charged with 29 counts of murder. He denied all of the charges against him. Back in 2009, Daly, Murphy and Hoey were found responsible for the bombing in civil court. They were ordered to pay £1.6 million in damages. This judgement was upheld in 2013. The three men refused to pay.11

Two years later, prosecutors dropped all of the charges against him after evidence provided by a civilian witness was called into question. The witness had connected Daly to a mobile phone that had been used on the day of the bomb. However, the witness then conceded that it was very possible he could have confused receiving the phone call on the day of the Omagh bomb with a call he had received a week earlier.12

Prosecutors stated: “The decision not to seek the return of Seamus Daly for trial in the Crown Court has been taken following a careful review of the current state of the evidence. This has focused in particular on the testimony of a key witness during committal proceedings last week. Under cross-examination a number of issues became apparent which impacted upon the reliability of the evidence that a witness was providing.”

In 2007, a permanent memorial for the victims of the Omagh bomb was erected in the town. It was built on the site where the car bomb was planted.

It consists of a 4.5m glass monument which includes a heart. On the wall adjacent to the memorial, there is a plaque which simply refers to an “act of terror.”

The Omagh Bomb, 24 Years On

The decision on the ambiguity of the plaque was met by criticism by many of the victims’ families. Michael Gallagher, whose son, Aiden, was killed, said: “There can be no ambiguity over what happened on 15 August 1998, and no dancing around words can distract from the truth.”13

Around the corner from the memorial is a memorial garden. Due to the position of the glass memorial, it’s almost always in the shade. The designers got around this by placing 31 mirrors in the Memorial Garden. Each mirror represents one of the victims. The light reflected from these mirrors then beam down the street and directly onto the heart inside the pillar.

The Omagh Bomb Memorial Garden consists of a pond and water feature as well as a wall that includes a number of granite plaques. These plaques detail the events of the day and pay tribute to each victim.

In 2019, Kevin Skelton, whose wife Philomena was killed in the blast, affixed a bronze plaque to the bottom of the glass memorial. It reads: “In memory of 29 men, women, children and unborn twins who were brutally murdered and over 300 people injured by a dissident republican terrorist car bomb on the 15th August 1998, never forgotten.”

The Omagh Bomb, 24 Years On

Kevin said he added the plaque because he wanted the “full story” of the bomb to be known to visitors to the town and future generations. He stated: “This is the bomb site, but there is nothing here to tell you what happened – except a plaque on the wall which just says terror attack. This is telling the truth, who carried it out, nothing only the truth.”

Since the adding of the plaque was not authorized, there was much debate as to whether it would remain. Kevin said: “I hope and pray that it is left alone, it is part of Omagh’s history, that it is here for generations to come as part of Omagh’s history and that no one touches it. It’s not meant to offend anyone, I don’t think it is offending anyone, it is just telling the truth and it shou;d have been on years ago.”14

Ultimately, it was decided that the plaque could remain.

The Omagh bomb was the single biggest terror attack of the Troubles, but to this very day, nobody has ever been held accountable.

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Footnotes:

  1. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 16 August, 1998 – “N. Ireland Bomb Kills 28”
  2. BBC News, 18 August, 1998 – “Omagh Bomb Warnings Released”
  3. Irish Times, 11 August, 2018 – “Omagh: The Smell of Burning Flesh, That’s Something I have to Live With”
  4. New York Daily News, 17 August, 1998 – “Blast Kills Innocents & Visitors”
  5. BBC News, 15 August, 2019 – “Omagh Bomb: The 29 Victims”
  6. The London Free Press, 23 August, 1998 – “Irish Unite in Mourning for Omagh Bomb Victims”
  7. Associated Press, 15 August, 2018 – “Northern Ireland Marks 20 Years Since Deadly Omagh Blast”
  8. The Guardian, 21 January, 2009 – “GCHQ Lacked Technology to Track Omagh Bombers, Say Security Sources”
  9. Associated Press, 1 March, 2016 – “Case Collapses Against Real IRA Man Charged with Omagh Bomb”
  10. International Business Times, 11 April, 2014 – “Seamus Daly to be Tried in Omagh”
  11. Associated Press, 1 March, 2016 – “Case Collapses Against Real IRA Man”
  12. Irish Times, 1 March, 2016 – “Omagh Bomb: Charges Against Only Remaining Suspect Dropped”
  13. BBC News, 18 September, 2007 – “Omagh Memorial in Inscription Row”
  14. Press Association Newswire, 8 January, 2019 – “Council to Consider Action Over New Plaque on Omagh Bomb Memorial”

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