For many people a romper room is a play room full of games and toys or a television show that they grew up watching. It evokes a carefree and silly time in childhood that is full of play, puppets, and joy. For others, particularly in the North of Ireland during the Troubles, a romper room is a place of absolute horror, torture, and death – a room that is akin to a slaughterhouse or a snuff film set. These romper rooms were usually derelict homes or businesses where drinking, dancing, torture, and killing could occur without much fear of discovery or interference. One of the more brutal murders of that era took place in a UDA-controlled romper room in the Sandy Row area of Belfast, 41 years ago today. The victim’s name was Ann Ogilby and her killers were all female members of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). It wasn’t really a political killing even though the murderous women involved were loyalist paramilitaries – it was more of a jealous feud that ended in Ann’s horrific torture and savage beating death. The story was so repulsive and put such a spotlight on the women’s group that it resulted in the total dissolution of their unit.
Ann Ogilby was no angel. She was an attractive woman who liked to drink and dance. She was an unwed mother who had a lot of lovers and children, but she still went out socially and had casual affairs. She bucked the conservative nature of Protestantism again when she had an affair with a married UDA commander and eventually bore his child, much to the dismay of his wife. Ann also made disrespectful comments in public about her on many occasions, even though she knew that the woman was also involved in the paramilitary unit. Perhaps she thought that having his child would protect her – or perhaps she truly was fearless. Either way, her bragging and disparaging remarks were too much for the wife and eight weeks after her husband’s child was born, she brought her case against Anne before a kangaroo court set up by the UDA. She was also smart enough not to be around for the consequences of it. Ann was kidnapped and brought before the makeshift ten person panel to answer questions about the affair and her subsequent remarks against the activities of the commander’s wife. She was also told that if she were found guilty, she’d be up for a “rompering“. At the end of the case, the eight women on the panel found her guilty but the two men on it didn’t reach a verdict and ordered her release. She left and went out to wait for a bus.
Once the men were gone, the angry women went after her again, boarding the bus and “re-arresting” her after claiming they heard her make a sarcastic comment as she left her trial. They forcibly removed her from the bus and shoved her in a car. Luckily for Ann that car was stopped by police on account of quick reporting by the bus driver and the girls were all questioned and taken to the police station. They were released around 2AM because none of them would talk. Ann went back in later, shaking and visibly upset but when she refused to divulge the reasons for her distress, she was put in a taxi and sent on her way.
The next day she had a meeting with a social worker. As she and her six year old daughter left the appointment, they were kidnapped again and brought to the Romper Room. Her daughter was given some money and told to go out and buy some sweets while her mother was chained up and hooded in another room. Two teenage members of the unit (aged 16 and 17) proceeded to bash Ann with bricks, stones, and anything else at hand. Halfway through the beating they stopped to smoke cigarettes, practice dance moves, and plan their night at a disco when they were done. Then they went back to beating Ann to death, despite the fact that her small daughter could be heard screaming on the other side of the door. When it was over, her child was dropped off on the steps of the hostel where she and her mother lived and told that her mum would be waiting for her. Even at six, she knew that was a lie.
Ann’s body was found five days later and the savagery of her death shocked all who heard about it. When the callous details of her murder emerged, the entire city denounced the female UDA unit. The brutality of Ann’s death was hard to overlook. It stood out even in a time when bombs and punishment murders were increasing all the time. This case was different though – it was a rare example of female violence and overkill, and an unusual Protestant on Protestant crime that shook Sandy Row. They had not expected the loyalist paramilitaries to take out one of their own nor did they approve of it. The official UDA didn’t either, and was quick to say that the killing was unsanctioned and it had been a personal matter between jealous women – not a real operation. The female unit was immediately shut down and the investigation led to the arrests of ten women and one man in connection with the killing. All ten women were sent to prison and even though their sentences were heavy, including life for a couple of them, they have all been released and returned to Sandy Row, where some still reside today. Over the next few decades, the Troubles continued with increasingly brutal violence, many more romper room sessions, and countless murders. In recent years, paramilitary style punishment killings or beatings have been on the rise again, but Ann Ogilby’s is still hard to forget. After all, it’s a haunting reminder that pack mentality is terrifying, and that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.