6 March 2003
Murder on the Rocks — 15 Years On
—by Jarlath Kearney, Andersonstown News

Fifteen years ago this week three unarmed IRA volunteers; Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage and Dan McCann were shot dead on the island of Gibraltar by British SAS assassins. Jarlath Kearney spoke to the Savage family about their loss and the legacy of those controversial killings.

The three crumpled brown envelopes are stamped On Her Majesty’s Service. Inside the first is a set of sunglasses. One rim is empty the smashed particles lie in the corner of the envelope. The other focal has dried blood on it. Inside the next is a Legion of Mary miraculous medal. Again, blood is visible on the small silver surface. Inside the third envelope is a watch with a black leather strap that looks almost new. It has no blood on it. But it is stopped at twenty minutes to three.

The envelopes and personal items are resting on the knees of Sean Savage’s mother, Lily. For all their simplicity, they eloquently tell the story of Sean’s assassination by the SAS just seconds after his comrades Dan McCann and Mairéad Farrell were also gunned down in Gibraltar fifteen years ago, on March 6, 1988.

But whilst they symbolize his death, these small artifacts tell us nothing about his 23 years of life. In the end, it is left to Sean’s family and friends to hold on to the memories of his short life.

“We were very, very close. He was always in the kitchen he loved cooking. He went in for all these different sauces and things,” says Lily with a sad smile. “He thought I should have liked them too, but I would go back to my own cooking. He went for pasta and things like that, and he did it all up to me it was mush!”

Lily fondly remembers how food even dominated the day of Sean’s First Communion.

“That day always stands out in my mind. Even at that age he was fussy about his food and after he made his First Communion in St Paul’s, they had a breakfast organized. They were carrying scrambled eggs up in a big container made of aluminum and all the kids were sitting around eating it up, but Sean was determined. He just refused to eat it, the only one!”

However, Sean never turned his nose up at his mother’s home-made bread.

“I bake my own bread. He loved the wheaten bread, you know. And every time I would get it out of the oven, he’d have been picking away at it and I would have to tell him to leave it alone, for there were other people to get from it too,” says Lily. “Sean was happy, assertive and decent, and he had a profound and protective love for his younger brother Robert who has learning difficulties.”

Sean’s childhood was spent with his parents, brother and two sisters in a happy family home on the Kashmir Road. One day Lily arrived home to find Sean had transformed an entire carpet at the back of the house from blue into white all because he had decided to investigate the inside of the washing powder box! Long afternoons were sometimes spent in Woodvale Park, while summer holidays meant a few days in Bangor or a house in Bundoran. In 1976 Sean was awarded Gaelic Player of the Year by his primary school, St. Galls. The following year the Savage family moved up to Turf Lodge. Lily often recalls how Sean, as a young altar boy at Clonard, used to get up for 8 o’clock Mass on Sundays.

“He would come back home and we’d still be in bed. I can still see him coming up the stairs to let me know he was home, because he loved his fry on a Sunday morning.”

At school, Sean’s ability and attitude is evident in the frequency of positive comments on his old reports.

“He was always good at English. He did alright at Irish. But he was good at art very good at art,” says Lily.

After collecting six O Levels, Sean’s desire to go on to further study was disrupted by his arrest, aged just seventeen. That was the first time we knew he was involved because we didn’t know anything before that. It was the greatest surprise of my life and he came in to me one morning and said, “Peelers, mother.”

And I came down to the door and the police said, “Sean or John,” and I let on I wasn’t wise. So when I went up the stairs he’s already dressed and he’s sitting on his bed tying his shoes.

Although he didn’t do A levels, Sean did become very interested in photography even going to the lengths of building his own darkroom. “He was a great one for taking action photographs and things during the troubles. He also used to go up to the races at Dundrod and do speed ones of the bikes,” Lily says. Despite his obvious talent as a photographer, Sean’s interest in photography waned as he got older. He spent much of his spare time traveling and cycling.

Even so, about a month before he was killed, Lily remembers him wondering if he should take up his hobby again. It is those final days Sean spent at home that Lily recalls most vividly.

“I had been doing part-time work at the tailoring and had come up with messages that I got down the town that Wednesday,” she says. Sean told his parents that he was leaving on Thursday to spend the weekend at a friend’s caravan in Galway. “And when he saw I had fillet steak and fish, he says I’ll take it with me. The meat was for Thursday night and he’d the fish for Friday. And that was him then. And where he went on Thursday night well, I don’t know.”

Before leaving on Thursday, Sean asked his father John for the loan of his car for a few minutes. In retrospect the family thinks he may have been looking for a reason to say thanks without raising any questions. “He went away on the Thursday and I gave him the meat and the fish and wrapped it in tin foil. He stood just between the kitchen and the hall and I’m still working about the kitchen you know, lifting stuff to put in the rubbish and he was loath to leave without saying something.”

“Now we wouldn’t have been ones for hugging and kissing, but he just says to me, Well mother, I’m away. I’ll probably see you next week,” says Lily. Tragically for the Savage family, Sean did come home the following week but in a coffin after being shot, whilst unarmed, by SAS assassins.

“His last birthday that he had here the 26th of January it was when we always put a few pounds in the card and he felt it because it was bulky. And then Sean said “I love these cards that you have to get way down low to lift up because of all the weight in them.” He had a great sense of humor,” says Lily. “And he says to me Imagine mother, twenty-three.”

“We’re all getting old,” Lily sighs, “and he just stayed at twenty-three.”


~ by Digory Kirke on July 22, 2008.

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