Stating the known truth
Sunday January 30th 1972 was the day after my 20th birthday. I had travelled down to my home in Southport from university in Edinburgh to take my mother to a concert featuring Irish film star, Richard Harris. We had a vague link to him, and some mutual friends, through the Co Clare seaside resort, Kilkee, where he had a house, and we spent our summer holidays. He had recently teamed up with Jimmy Webb, writer of his hit, McArthur Park, to produce an album which he was promoting, and his tour also included some poetry, reminiscences, and comic out takes from his films.
On my birthday I had met him at a local record shop and chatted about Kilkee and people we knew. He had a charisma about him and it was a pleasure to catch up with him. In addition, this would be the first time I had ever treated my mother to a concert, so as we finished our Sunday evening meal, we were in high good spirits and looking forward to the show.
Before leaving the house, we paused to catch the television news headlines, as in those distant days before rolling news, the 6 0’clock news bulletin was the first detailed report of the day’s events.
There was a confused report of some people being shot at a Civil Rights Rally in Derry; few details and little certainty. In some ways it was typical of the way news came from the Six Counties in the early seventies. I was interested, but no more than usual.
I had been political from a young age and my interest in civil rights in American politics had developed over a familiar contemporary route through the Paris 68 riots, to Burntollet, the People’s Democracy, and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. My family was from Ireland, I had an historical regard for the Republican position, and had been in the country in the recent past at the time of the Bogside siege and Internment. I was steeped in the Irish Troubles and devoured all the news I could find.
But, for all that, I was taking my mother to the theatre. We chatted briefly about what might have happened as we walked into town; my mother abjured the violence, I spoke up for the demonstrators; we both hoped the report of fatalities would prove to be just another unsubstantiated rumour.
In what would later prove to be a huge irony, we spent the evening of January 30th being entertained by stereotypical Irish wit, blarney and charm. Harris was a showman who sometimes struggled to take himself seriously as an actOR and he was good company.
It was only when we arrived home after 10 pm that the full import of what had actually happened became clear. On the Sunday night, before the claims and counter claims, the investigations and the justifications, the news was simple. Troops had shot over thirty people, exact number unclear, and reports suggested 12 or 13 were dead. For all the news coming out of the Troubles over the previous three years, this was hard to comprehend: troops fought the IRA, people died in gun battles or in premature explosions – but soldiers killing demonstrators????
By the time I arrived back in Edinburgh it was clear that something horrendous had happened. The Dublin Government declared a national day of mourning, the British Embassy in Dublin would burn, and around the world questions were being asked. On a personal level, people who had never understood my interest in Ireland, or support for reunification, changed their attitudes; Edinburgh students, like those around the world, marched in protest the following Wednesday afternoon. And the realisation of what had happened just got worse.
Nobody who read the Widgery Report with a modicum of neutrality or knowledge could fail to conclude that it was a whitewash. Many detected a kind of arrogance in the establishment’s reaction to the whole affair – as if the poor – literally poor – people of Derry didn’t really merit justice.
Inevitably, Bloody Sunday became a political football, booted from side to side to make a point, but, in reality, it far transcended politics.
Over the years I paid many visits to Derry – I loved it as a city, respected its history and found its people welcoming and phlegmatic in the face of adversity. In the seventies, when I first visited, the geography was as it had been on Bloody Sunday, and there was something horrible about sensing death in such a normal streetscape.
William St, Glenfada Park, Rossville St and its flats, Chamberlain St and Free Derry Corner are all iconic images in the history of the Troubles, but when you walked those streets and when you stood at the memorial in its original position in the courtyard of the flats, what you saw were people’s houses, the set of their lives. On Joseph Place, from where you could view the scene of much of the killing, you were standing in front of tiny well kept gardens, an arm’s length from kitchens and front rooms, photographs visible on tv sets, Squeezy bottles at the side of sinks, the detritus of ordinary lives and the landscape of ordinary people. It seemed impossible that death could have been so randomly and viciously visited on people in such a setting.
Of course, there are many locations in the Six Counties where you could come to the same conclusion; but what happened here had been at the hands of the government’s legally constituted forces whose mission was to protect their citizens. This wasn’t politics, this was the crazed betrayal of people’s rightful expectations and the awful horror bestowed by official dissembling and disinterest, especially in the disdainful whitewash by Widgery,
The actions of a handful of paratroopers, reported by Saville as out of control and unjustified, set in train an escalation of the Troubles to such an extent that it is impossible to compute how many lives were lost or ruined because of the reaction caused by those bullets so heedlessly dispatched that day. Those who killed dismissed their victims as unimportant and not deserving of life, but in so doing, condemned thousands of others, including soldiers and their families, to lives utterly changed or destroyed. God knows how many took to the path of violent resistance as a result of the 14 deaths,
For anyone who remembers that day, even those of us across the sea and tenuously connected, if at all, Bloody Sunday left its mark. Like the deaths of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and John Lennon; the disasters at Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough; the shootings at Hungerford and Dunblane; Bloody Sunday made our world a greyer place, with less hope and diminished optimism. We got on with our lives, we received other headlines, we had wonderful times and tragic times, but a piece of our attitude had forever been changed by January 30th 1972, and each anniversary, re-enactment, plea for justice, or visit to Derry reminded us that our world had become different.
So when we saw that disembodied hand giving the thumbs up from the first floor of the Guildhall today, the spontaneous joy of the crowd sent its own upliftitng message. Derry’s Eamonn McCann wrote that, from Saville, the victims’ families: don’t want to be told the truth – they want the truth to be told.
Now the truth is out there, for some, there will be closure, relief, or satisfaction. Others may wish more; but, for all, and indisputably, there is the joy of seeing their loved ones proclaimed as innocent as they had always known them to be.
Rossville St, and indeed Derry, in general, has been beautified, architecturally, and in many other ways, since 1972. Walking past the familiar street signs it is now more difficult to detect the landscape of the Troubles, but what hasn’t changed is the spirit of its people.
And, hopefully, because of Saville, because of a Prime Minsiter with the bottle to make an unreserved apology for ill conceived terror of nearly forty years ago, the sun will break more strongly through the clouds over William St tomorrow.
I really hope so, because if anyone deserves that, it’s the good people of Derry.