BELFAST, UK — Noel Large was full of adrenaline. He was full of hate. His fist clenched a .357 Magnum. His first two targets of the evening had failed. He needed a kill.
Eugene Mulholland was 25 years old, a hairdresser and married father of two small children. He’d been out for drinks that night. Upon parting, his friends urged him to take a taxi home. He brushed them off, and began the walk down Ormeau Road.
As Mulholland’s figure took shape in the darkness, Large knew that no one would be walking in this neighborhood, at this hour, but a Catholic. He had already decided that he wasn’t going home, as he put it, “empty-handed.”
He pulled up to the side of the road, got out of the car and shot Mulholland in the head at close range.
Large was a God-fearing man. “As soon as I’d done it,” he remembers, “I just looked straight up, and I just felt the presence of God looking down on me. I knew I’d stepped over a line.” Mulholland lay bleeding to death at his feet. Large got back in the car and drove home to east Belfast.*****
Thirty-four years later, Large squints up into the sun at a mural just off Shankill Road, Belfast’s main Protestant street.
Until recently, the wall bore an image of black-hooded commandos surrounding the logo of the Ulster Volunteer Force — the Protestant, pro-British paramilitary gang he once ran hits for.
The wall had been repainted, to downplay the community’s violent past. Instead of balaclava-clad men posing with guns, it now shows five smiling men posing with guns. This counts as progress in Belfast, where tensions still flare between Protestants loyal to the British crown and Catholic nationalists who want to join Ireland.
Large looked at the wall with a frown. He’s a soft-spoken man, inclined to understatement.
“I believe it’s a wee step back, because it’s still gunmen,” he said.
Large stands a few inches above five feet, weighs in at 140 pounds. He’s bald. He wears glasses. His right leg twists unexpectedly at the knee, an old injury with outsized consequences for his life.
He was once one of the most fearsome men in Belfast. He was an assassin, seeking out targets among the city’s Catholics.
Many former paramilitary members try to cloak their actions in legitimacy, saying they only fought other combatants and never intentionally harmed civilians. It was a political war, they claim — nationalists fighting British rule, loyalists defending their right to stay British. They deny they were motivated by sectarian or religious hatred.
Large does not. The things he did are not defensible, nor does he try to defend them. He once took part in the killing of a blameless elderly woman, shot in bed as her daughter watched. There is no sugar-coating it. He murdered innocent people, just because they were Catholic.
As a member of the UVF, Large was a player in four murders and some of the ugliest crimes in the history of the Troubles, the four-decade sectarian conflict between Catholic nationalists, Protestant loyalists and the British state.
Sentenced to four life sentences and 357 years in prison, he served just 16 years before being released as part of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the violence.
He’s ready to talk now. He’s pled guilty and served his time; he’s told his victims’ families the things they want to know. He has made his peace with God.
His story is one of a boy with a promising future who became a ruthless killer. By telling it he hopes to help others understand how young men turn to violence. He hopes there is something that proves to young people how useless and corrosive that violence is.
There are a lot of people in this town who have done bad things. Many now resort to alcohol, anger, contorted self-justifications. Large recites his crimes like novenas, not allowing himself the balm of denial. Living with his past is the price of survival.
Large was not raised in a violent home. He stresses this point. He was born in 1957, the second-oldest of five boys raised in Ballybeen, a sprawling housing estate just outside east Belfast.
The mostly Protestant community had a sizeable minority of Catholics. One of them was a boy Large’s age named Tony. Every evening after school, they would strip off their school blazers — Large’s from Dundonald Boys High, a Protestant school; Tony’s from the Catholic St. Augustine’s Boys Secondary — and play soccer.
One evening in the late 1960s, when they were about 11 or 12, the boys finished their game and bid each other farewell. That night, the Ulster Defense Association, a loyalist paramilitary group, torched the local Catholic families’ homes. Most fled before dawn.
Large never saw Tony again.
Slowly, he became more aware of the politics shaping his community.
Large’s uncle took the young teenager to watch Ian Paisley, a firebrand unionist preacher who rallied crowds into anti-Catholic frenzies. One of Paisley’s sticking points was that the British government deliberately prevented the security forces from cracking down on the IRA.
His subtext: Protestant men had to defend their communities by any means necessary.
On July 21, 1972, the IRA planted some two dozen bombs across Belfast, an attack that came to be known as Bloody Friday. Large’s home in Ballybeen was on a hilltop. Looking west across Belfast, he could see the plumes of smoke rising from the city and hear the explosions firing off with terrifying randomness.
Large’s friend, 15-year-old William Crothers, had just started a summer job at Ulsterbus, a public transit service. At 2:48 p.m. a car bomb exploded at the bus station on Belfast’s Oxford Street. Six people died.
News cameras captured emergency responders picking their way among decimated human remains. That night on television, Large watched as the earthly remnants of Billy Crothers were shoveled into a bag.
There wasn’t much opportunity for boys from Ballybeen, but Large had a ticket out: soccer.
He was good. Really good. By 19 he’d played for the Irish League. Portsmouth Football Club invited him to a trial in England. He didn’t have the money to travel. But the letter alone felt so promising, such a portent of things to come, that the present began to feel like a waste of time.
Large quit school. He got a job as an apprentice plumber, but didn’t take it seriously and lost the job for failing to show up on time. Didn’t matter. The future was brighter than anything Belfast had to offer.
“I must have been hard to live with when I was younger,” Large said with a wry smile. “I knew everything. I didn’t need to do well in school. I was gonna earn enough money to pay a fella to count the money for me.”
And then one night, shortly before his wedding, he injured his leg. Before the diagnosis of a torn cruciate ligament and cartilage, before the botched repair job, even before he’d left the soccer field, Large knew it was over. The dream was gone. The future stretched long and empty in front of him.
May 1981 was a bleak time in Belfast. In the H-shaped blocks of Maze Prison, republican inmates launched a hunger strike to protest being classified as criminals instead of political prisoners. Ten hunger strikers succumbed one after another, in an ugly season of death.
Large was working at Harland and Wolff, the Belfast shipyard that built the Titanic and a source of employment for many working-class Protestant men. His work ethic hadn’t improved much since his teenage years and he lost that job, too.
Large was then unemployed, with a wife and a young daughter. Belfast felt unbearably tense, a place on the brink of a civil war. Joining the UVF felt like enlisting in the military, an acceptance of his duty to defend Protestant Northern Ireland against Catholic nationalists.
The disappointment of his ruined future lingered like the taste of a bitter pill. In the crucible of sectarian Belfast, heartbreak hardened into rage. Here, at least, was one wrong he could right.
He’d flirted with the UVF before, signing up for the youth wing at 17. His unit now, however, was not a place for boys. He was asked what he was willing to do for the organization.
He said he was willing to kill.
That first murder was on Sept. 19, 1981. Large had identified the target, staked out his neighborhood, picked up the gun. The victim was supposed to be a fighter from the Irish National Liberation Army, a republican paramilitary group. Large was nervous, but ready. He drove to the house with an associate and hid in the front yard for an hour waiting for the man to come home. He never did.
Frustrated, Large drove to Belfast’s Markets neighborhood, a heavily nationalist area. He and his partner knocked on another INLA member’s door to ambush him instead, but no one answered. So they got back in the car and drove back up Ormeau Road.
That’s where Large crossed paths with Eugene Mulholland, the young father walking home along that street.
The first shot knocked Mulholland to the pavement, flat on his stomach with his head turned to one side. Large crouched down so that he could look the young man in the eyes, he later told investigators. Then he took a deep breath and shot him twice in the head.
A few weeks later, Large and an armed crew broke into a house in the Markets area and forced their way up to the bedroom to assassinate another INLA man. They found a woman at her dresser, about the same age as the target was supposed to be, and opened fire on a figure lying in the bed.
Large was downstairs, armed and waiting. News reports the next morning confirmed the panicked statements his associates made as they fled the scene. The figure in the bed was not a republican fighter. They had the wrong house. They’d killed Mary McKay, a 68-year-old Catholic widow. The younger woman in the room was her daughter.
Large was arrested in connection with the shooting a few days later and taken to Castlereagh Holding Centre, an infamous Belfast police interrogation site where suspects came out on stretchers or worse. Large was held for a week. He never cracked. He came out and had a new standing in the organization, an elevated status based on his capacity for ruthlessness.
“That’s where you see it start taking over more and more of your life. You become more like a 24-hour-a-day terrorist, rather than somebody who’s used and steps out of it into family life. And that’s where it changed for me,” he said.
Power, fear and respect
Large’s crimes on behalf of the UVF grew. Bank robberies. Armed robberies. Carjackings. Attempted murders.
He used his size to his advantage. Sometimes when staking out a neighborhood or victim, he’d check out books from the library and assume the persona of a harmless bookworm to deflect attention. On another occasion, he volunteered for a UVF attack, only to hear the objection that his diminutive frame made him too easy to overpower.
“My attitude was, are you not giving me a loaded gun?” Large recalled.
“There’s no fear,” he said of his mindset at the time. “There’s no respect for the quality of life, or the right of life. At that time, for that year and a half, I feared no one, because I knew what I was capable of. [I had] what I thought was respect — but it wasn’t respect, it was fear. People feared me because they knew what you were probably capable of. And I gloried in that, you know. I don’t mind admitting that. But I knew also that it was wrong. I knew when I was involved in what I was involved in that it was wrong.”
He remembers the fear on people’s faces during robberies, the way they looked when they saw his gun. He liked it, he admits now. It fed something inside him, something that grew until there was no room left for decency.
“I suppose it was that power, if you like, that you held over people. It's not, uh — it’s not normal. And I indulged in that for a period of about 16 to 18 months, and slowly seen my life starting to break down and go completely out of control.”
Grisly crime and punishment
Violence during the Troubles reached harrowing levels of depravity. Few crimes were more appalling than those of the Shankill Butchers, a gang led by Lenny Murphy, a lifelong criminal and avowed anti-Catholic bigot.
Though nominally a member of the UVF, Murphy directed a gang that essentially operated as an independent death squad. Starting in 1975, when Murphy was just 23, the gang kidnapped and brutally murdered nearly two dozen people, most of them Catholic civilians. Victims’ bodies were often found mutilated by knives.
On Oct. 22, 1982, the IRA kidnapped a 54-year-old part-time British soldier named Thomas Cochrane and announced that they were holding him for interrogation. Murphy hatched a plan to take a Catholic hostage in exchange for Cochrane’s life. To help him carry it out, he approached Noel Large.
Large was never made an official member of Murphy’s gang, but Murphy appeared to be grooming him to replace members of his killing team who had gone to prison, according to journalist Martin Dillon’s account of the Shankill Butchers’ crimes. Outside a pub on Shankill Road, Murphy explained his plan to Large and a few other men. They agreed to take part.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 24, Joseph Donegan, 48, hailed a taxi driving down Falls Road, the main Catholic drag in Belfast. The unemployed woodworker was a married father of seven children. He’d been out with a few friends for pool and a couple of drinks. When he got into the taxi — a car hijacked hours earlier — Murphy was in the backseat.
They brought Donegan to a vacant house where Murphy used to live. He was beaten. Kicked. Struck with a shovel. Tortured. At some point the attackers realized they didn’t know his name, a piece of information they needed if they were to keep up the pretense that he was being held alive in exchange for Cochrane. They sent for Large to come to the house and question him.
Large grows uncomfortable when discussing this murder. He skips over details, possibly to spare both Donegan’s family and his own memory.
“By the time I had entered the house the man had been very badly beaten,” he said. “And the man, when I went in to question him, was really beyond speaking. And he died in my presence, without me in any way shape or form being physically violent to him. But it was a very gruesome murder.”
Large and an associate dumped Donegan’s body in an alleyway and fled. When police investigated the crime scene, they found Donegan’s teeth scattered throughout the house, the roots still attached. Murphy had pulled them out with pliers.
Within days, Large and the others were arrested. During his interrogation, Large inadvertently implicated himself. With prison inevitable, he decided to come clean with it all.
The transcripts of these confessions, as Dillon put it, were “littered with the comments of a young man without remorse for his actions.” Large had laughed when he described killing Mulholland.
He spent two and a half years in jail before pleading guilty to all charges in 1985. He was sentenced to four life terms, with 357 years on top. He was not yet 30 when he entered Maze Prison. The court said he was going to die there.
God claims Large’s son
It was in the Maze Prison that, as Large puts it, “the scales fell off my eyes.”
He had been in for about two years when he saw Ian Paisley on television, leading a rally outside a government building. But when the rally got out of hand and violence seemed afoot, Paisley beat a hasty retreat. Large watched, disgusted. The big man wasn’t so big and brave after all.
He started to see violence as futile, serving no purpose on either side but to run up the tally of the dead.
He became a born-again Christian. Large has a prodigious capacity for belief. His faith is total, as all-encompassing now as his commitment to violence was then.
“When I look back at things, I can see the Lord's hand in my life,” he said. “I can see things that happened that meant nothing to me at the time, but afterwards I was able to look back and see.”
“I was sentenced to 357 years along with the four life sentences,” he explained. “It meant nothing to me because I knew I wasn’t going to spend 357 years in prison. It was only later when my son was born without a windpipe forming ... it was only afterwards when I look back that I’m able to read the story of David and Bathsheba, and I could see the God of love who I love, who sent his son to die for me, is also a God of justice. And there has to be a price for innocent life.
“The man that I killed as a gunman was shot down with a .357 Magnum revolver, and I was given 357 years. And my son was born on the 3rd, died on the 5th and was cremated on the 7th. And I believe in justice.”
Large’s first marriage had long since ended. Ben David was born to his second wife, whom he met on furlough and married while in prison.
The death of his son made him feel the pain he’d forced on other people, he said. He understood then the suffering he caused, the agony he’d inflicted on the families left behind.
God took Large’s son because of what he did. He believes this, he said, “without a shadow of a doubt.”
“But I don’t regret that he done it,” he said. “I’m thankful that he done it. Because it's a price I know I had to pay. And I have no qualms about that, and what’s even better about it is that my wife is quite easy with it, because she knows that we serve a God of love and a God of justice. And that she will, like me, see our son Ben David again.”
Peace and freedom
Large left prison Oct. 28, 1998, 16 years almost to the day after the death of Joseph Donegan. He was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The universal release of people imprisoned for conflict-related crimes was one of the central points for the armed groups at the negotiating table, and one of the hardest things for the public to accept.
Large knows the disgust many people still have for him and his fellow ex-prisoners. He hears the words they use: terrorists, murderers, scum for whom there should be no place in decent society. He understands why people who suffered personally during the conflict feel that way. They are entitled to do so.
What doesn’t sit well with him is when that attitude comes from better-off people in Northern Ireland, for whom the conflict was often little more than a constant barrage of news from the rougher parts of town.
“The places where people went to prison and where people died were working class,” he said. “It was actually possible to live here and not be touched by the violence if you lived in the right area.”
When he’s disparaged for his past, treated as if he’s a different life form, he asks his challenger how he or she felt on March 16, 1988. On that day, a loyalist named Michael Stone fired upon a crowd in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery during the funeral of three IRA volunteers killed during an operation in Gibraltar. Stone wounded 60 mourners and killed three.
There had been a spate of deadly IRA attacks on civilians in the months leading up to the massacre. Large believes many law-abiding Protestants were happy to let someone else retaliate violently, just not willing to risk it themselves.
“If you were urging him on, you’re no different from me,” he said. “We’re all capable of that. All of us.”
Large went to work in a center for at-risk youths, many of whom idolized him for his paramilitary exploits. His job was to take this admiration and use it to discourage his charges from following the same path.
Community work was one of the few arenas his criminal record did not bar him from. It also gave him a sense of purpose, a chance to rectify some of the discord and damage he had helped sow.
He remembered talking to one young loyalist who told Large that his ultimate goal was to end up memorialized on one of Belfast’s murals.
“I asked him, ‘Do you realize the only way you’re gonna get that is by dying early?’ And he said, 'Yeah.' He was quite prepared to accept that,” Large said. “It made me question what young people in the community that I was working in and from, what sort of hope were they growing up with?”
Large took part in another project focused on working with former republican paramilitaries on joint peacekeeping projects. After not setting foot in a Catholic part of Belfast for the first 40 years of his life, he found himself working with people from the same organizations as those he once plotted to kill.
His influence is waning as time passes. He’s not an icon to young loyalists in the same way he was.
“I completely understand the further we move away from the Troubles the less impact my role will be,” he said. “I can live with that. I understand that. I also have experience that the longer I’ve been out of prison, the less impact the role I do play was having with society in general.”
He’s worried that a generation of young people struggling to find work might conclude that peace hasn’t done much for them, and be drawn to violence all over again.
Headlines about young British men and women running off to join the so-called Islamic State make clear that violence remains a powerful draw for many young people. In Belfast, an angry kid doesn’t need a passport to cause havoc.
Dissident groups bucking the peace process are still active in Northern Ireland’s loyalist and nationalist neighborhoods. Large sees it as his job to find those young people who remind him of himself — angry, poor, rudderless — and make sure they don’t make the choices he did.
“I look at the lack of investment that has happened in the areas where the killing and the dying and the fighting and the people going to prison — that hasn’t been addressed. That hasn’t impacted at all in any positive way,” he said.
“The fact that we’re not killing each other in terms of green and orange has been set aside, but the issues of poverty and deprivation are still there. And for me, there will still be a role for trying to address those issues.”