'in shock' Pensioners living beside controversial gun club say it reawakens dark memories of Troubles
One woman said gunshots remind her of the day she stumbled into an assassination attempt
Pensioners living in the shadow of a controversial gun club say the sound of gunfire reawakens dark memories from the Troubles.
Noel and Beth McCurry and near neighbour Hazel Gilliland say the sound of semi-automatic gunfire from Minehill Targeting and Sporting Club a few hundred yards from their homes has left them frightened and exposed.
For Hazel, the crackle of gunfire takes her to a dark place, and for Beth it brings back memories of the day she stumbled into an assassination attempt.
The sound of gunshots, yards from Hazel's home just off the dual carriageway that connects Bangor and Newtownards, evokes memories of the day a young girl was unwittingly dragged into the Troubles.
She lives in the shadow of the Minehill Club on the edge of the Clandeboye Estate, a far cry from the streets of east Belfast in the opening days of the conflict.
But that's where her mind takes her when the sound of semi-automatic gunfire echoes across her home.
As a 14-year-old girl in 1970 she was returning home after a night out with friends from her church - the first time she had ventured out since the death of her father two weeks earlier - when she innocently walked into a double murder.
"I had just got out of the car and I was aware of two men walking along the other side of the street, as I put the key in the front door they were shot," she said. "They were singing football songs when the shots rang out.
"That was when the Troubles came to Ballymacarrett."
The incident on Beechfield Street claimed the lives of Jimmy McCurrie and Bobby Neil, two innocent victims of an IRA sniper shooting from the grounds of nearby St Matthew's Church on the lower Newtownards Road.
The images have troubled and haunted Hazel ever since. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the dark memories are back thanks to two bizarre incidents at the Minehill club over the New Year period.
The club has fallen silent in recent months, with shooting suspended after they were found to be in breach of planning regulations which resulted in the local council imposing an enforcement order.
But on New Year's Eve the shooting started again.
"I was in shock," said Hazel, "at first I wasn't 100 per cent sure, I thought it was fireworks but there was nothing in the night sky, it was definitely gunfire. I couldn't believe it - 6.30pm on New Year's Eve in the pitch dark."
On January 7, it happened again, this time around 9.30pm.
"I had gone into the kitchen to make my husband a cup of tea when it started, rapid gunfire, about 30 shots. Again I couldn't believe it, it was pitch black and freezing."
On both occasions police were called but the PSNI has told Hazel there is nothing they can do as it is not a police matter.
That was despite a PSNI inspector and the local firearms officer visiting Hazel before Christmas telling her to report any incidents.
"As soon as I hear shots I relive the whole Beechfield thing, I'm petrified. It's awful and it leaves me very anxious."
The boundary of the gun club is barely 100 yards from Hazel's back fence and the entrance to the club's land is sandwiched between her house and her nearest neighbour, leaving her no escape from the noise and the dark memories.
And she reveals the shooting drives her from her home. For four years club members let off steam every Saturday afternoon, forcing Hazel to leave her house.
"I can't be here when the shooting starts, I have to get out before it starts."
It resulted in her leaving her home for four years every Saturday afternoon to escape the sound.
"Even then, I'm anxious because I know why I can't stay there, it's awful and it leaves me very worried about the future.
"We moved here 16 years ago, had I known they were going to put gun club so close we wouldn't have come."
Members normally shoot at targets in daylight but it is thought the recent incidents were the result of deer hunting. Animals from the 150-strong herd which roams the estate and surrounding countryside are lured into the open before a number are culled.
For near neighbours Beth and Noel Curry, their fear surrounds the possibility of a stray round hitting their home.
For them too the sounds bring back dark memories. As an 18-year-old in Armagh returning home from work, Beth stumbled into an Official IRA assassination attempt of then Stormont minister and UUP politician John Taylor, now Lord Kilclooney.
Two gunmen raked his car, hitting him five times. Beth was yards away when the gunfire broke out and she saw the would-be killers run from the scene.
"Of course [gunfire] brings it back, it's very unsettling and worrying, it is so close that you're always afraid a stray bullet will find its way into the yard or hit the house." She said deer were a common sight in the fields surrounding their home and they were sometimes driven down the slopes and often escaped on to the busy dual carriageway yards from their home. She said on New Year's Eve they could clearly see the lasers the shooters use for night-shoots flickering across the fields that rise up from the back of their property.
"As senior citizens we feel intimidated and very vulnerable," she said.
Husband Noel, who as a nine-year-old boy witnessed an IRA attack on Swatragh police station in Co Derry in 1956, said the gunfire had left him afraid to go into the yard at the back of his home.
"People who come here can't believe it when they hear the shots and that it is so close to the house," he said.
Noel and wife Beth, who uses a wheelchair and is virtually housebound, say close-by gunfire has left them feeling exposed.
"I'm just terrified a stray bullet will come into the yard," Noel said.
The PSNI confirmed it had been called to two incidents on Decmber 31 and January 7 "in relation to reports of shooting activity in the vicinity of Bangor Road, Newtownards.
"Officers advised that no criminal activity had taken place."
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