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Echoes of the brutal Ballynalargy murder that lingered on

Sarah Jane Downey's Bible showing an inscription dated Christmas 1895.

The brutal murder of Sarah Jane Downey at her Ballynalargy cottage in January 1939 shocked the whole of Northern Ireland. In the concluding part of his recollection of the events, The Digger recalls how the murder continued to haunt the area.

THE police were involved in making extensive enquiries into the circumstances and on Tuesday January 31 1939 took the unusual step of broadcasting a message on the BBC national wavelength giving the description of a labourer whom they wished to interview in relation to the murder which occurred between the 21st and 25th January.

Their enquiries had revealed that a farm labourer named as Thomas Mackell had left the locality on January 24 1939. The following description was given "Aged about 45 years of age, 5ft. 8inches in height, fresh complexion, thin face, hollow cheeks, prominent chin, black hair turning grey at side, front teeth missing in upper jaw, eye teeth prominent, decayed teeth in lower jaw, heavy cigarette smoker. Last seen dressed in navy blue suit, striped collar and tie, black boots and grey cap."

At that stage the police were "merely anxious to find out why he left."

The suspicions held by the public at the time that Thomas Mackell was indeed the perpetrator were further fuelled when the police offered a £100 reward to anyone giving information resulting in his arrest.

A further and more detailed description was issued adding that Mackell had deep set eyes, believed to be blue or grey in colour, bushy eyebrows, scar at base of forefinger probably right hand, frowning or scowling appearance, smoked Park Drive cigarettes and had a North of Ireland accent.

The case was so high profile the Lord Chief Justice, who was addressing the Grand Jury in March 1939, made reference to the murder. Thomas Mackell had been employed by a local farmer and had been one of the men assisting at the Robinson farm prior to the murder of their next door neighbour Sarah Jane Downey.

A member of the Robinson family, who was a child at the time, can recall a party of men sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner. One of those men was Thomas Mackell.

To this day this memory still haunts the individuals who recall this. The Robinson children were so scared they dared not walk past the cottage and took an alternative route across the fields to get to school. William Robinson, their father, had haunting flashbacks throughout his life of Sarah Jane Downey's body as it had lain on the kitchen floor, at times when he bent down to carry out some task about the farm.

The murder had a devastating effect on all those directly related to the tragic events.

Members of the public swamped the Ballynalargy area after the murder just to catch a glimpse of the aftermath and ongoing police activity. I was told that lorry drivers were stopping on the main road and standing on their loads just to get a view of the cottage, such was the macabre interest.

The press meanwhile were reporting arrests at Pettigo, Dungiven and Glenarm although the individuals were later ruled out of enquiries. A body washed up on the shore of Portlogan in Wigtownshire on Sunday afternoon March 5 1939, thought to be the remains of Thomas Mackell, was later declared not to be him.

The rumours circulating locally at the time were that he had made his way to the mainland or to the Republic of Ireland.

Those who remember the incident today are still of the opinion that Thomas Mackell was never found and remained at large.

The funeral of Sarah Jane Downey took place on Saturday January 28 1939 from her brother's home at Coronation Cottage to Magheragall Parish Churchyard where she was interred in the family burying ground. The service in the house and at the graveside were carried out by the Reverend Ruddock, rector of Broomhedge where Sarah Jane regularly worshipped. He was assisted by Mr Briggs of Hulls Hill Mission Hall.

Rev Ruddock was reported to have told his Sunday evening congregation at St. Matthew's Broomhedge that Sarah Jane "had been born and reared in the humble cottage situate right in the middle of the parish. Her father, who worked on the roads, did everything in his power to bring up his daughter in a decent and respectable manner, often depriving himself of the necessities of life so as to leave her in a comfortable way."

He added that it was commonly reported that she had been left a "goodly sum" and "she lived by herself in a frugal and careful manner." She had regularly attended the ladies' Bible class on Sunday mornings.

In his oration at her funeral the Rev Ruddock made reference to Sarah Jane's brother "who was left to mourn this sad loss."

"May the chain which bound them to earth now bind them to heaven."

It was to be another 27 years, almost to the day, before Samuel Downey would depart from this life. He died on February 22 1966. Sarah Jane Downey is buried in unmarked family burying ground close to the East side of Magheragall Parish Church.

Thanks to members of the Downey, Robinson, Reid and Thompson families for sharing their memories of this tragic event and to Rev Nicholas Dark, Magheragall Parish Church for his assistance. The Digger can be contacted at

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