When I jumped into the Learners’ Pool for the first time, not knowing to hold my nose, the bubbles filled my nose and mouth. Almost 40 years later, I remember it still. However, it is what happened outside The Baths that I remember more vividly, brought to mind quite often by photographs or a chance moment of Television footage. Memories that children should not really have.
I came across a photo recently of a young man wounded – shot in the back, to be precise – by the British Army on Bloody Sunday, January 1972, in my home town. The entry wound was small and dribbled just a bit of blood. It fascinated me. “You’re obsessed,” said my wife. “Obsessed with any aspect of that period.” Perhaps I am. However, for me, these are more than just photos. They bring back very real memories. The vague white smoke in the pictures ? That’s the CS gas that clawed at my throat, made me choke as an 11 year old, got through closed windows and tore at my brothers’ eyes. The gas that I walked through many afternoons on leaving “The Wee Nuns” Primary School.
Those rifles ? I can tell you the sound of each one. The report of a British Army Self Loading Rifle in the streets behind our house. It doesn’t sound like in a movie, it’s a shockingly loud, sharp report that bounces off the walls of the street – and left the gable end of the house at the top of Beechwood Avenue pock-marked, just like in “real” wars. The M16 Armalite sounds more lethal than its toy-like appearance suggests and left bullet hole after bullet-hole in the breeze-block wall beside “The Baths.”
It’s Eugene Dunne, called out of our French class at 16 years old to be told his father had been blown up “accidentally.” Or my other classmate, Bernie McGuigan, whose Dad is the man in the photograph with the huge puddle of blood around his head on Bloody Sunday. Or seeing the Paratroopers who did that, earlier in the day, on my way to church, ready for action, their faces blackened, heads covered with the cropped helmet of their regiment. Or my Primary Teacher, Mr. Carr, who taught us to sing songs, making little circles with his tuning fork in his right hand, coached us to recite poetry for the annual Feis: he was blown into a tree in his school grounds by a Booby Trap. Or the Petrol Tanker which was blown up in front of Strand Road RUC station. Do you know that there is a short gap between the sound of a bomb going off and the red glow of the explosion ? Or watching virtually all the shops in Foyle Street being blown up in front of my eyes, bursting into flame. Or, on a beautiful summer’s day being told that my “A Level” schoolmate was being charged with a double murder. Or that our next door neighbour was blown on fire into the street while his pal, also making bombs, was blown to pieces. Or seeing our Gym’s huge windows cave in all around the 12 year old boys herded there for safety. Or seeing our Irish language teacher blown across the room as the IRA launched a bomb against an Army “sangar” in the school grounds, just yards away, destroying the look-out post and probably the people in it. Or watching the corner of our little cul-de-sac every afternoon, to make sure that my brother Paul returned safely each day. Or witnessing, as a 10 year old, our policemen baton charge a Civil Rights march in Shipquay Street. Or my Aunt’s neighbour, a policeman and family friend, shot 9 times in the back in Donegal. Or taking cover in Stanley’s Walk as the bullets zinged down the street at the Army patrol in front of us.
Of course, that’s one aspect of my childhood. A hint of new-mown grass takes me immediately to week-ends and summers spent with my parents’ families, learning to milk cows, perching on top of a trailer loaded unsteadily with bales of hay, driving a tractor at – well, almost – break-neck speed, watching the sun set, counting the stars on a dark, silent night. Doing what little boys like to do – playing by the river, fishing, making model aeroplanes, climbing trees. Listening to stories about everyday adventures, woven by Brendan Brolly, pulling slowly on his pipe, his eyes scrunched into a constant smile, sharing with us yarns of every sort that had us laughing into the early hours.
One August, that changed. With no television in our mother’s home, my brothers and I listened to the RTE news on the old radio up on the shelf in the kitchen, the windows open to cool things down. We heard how our City was alight, how thousands of CS gas canisters had been fired and knew that our Father was in the middle of it all, besieged by crash-helmeted policemen in his workplace. We never had to worry about our parents’ safety. Until then. Jack Lynch, the Irish Prime Minister was to add more concern with his announcement that he was ordering Army Field Hospitals to the border with Northern Ireland. Was an invasion the next step?
Our schoolmates, when we returned in September, had all manner of tales of adventure, mostly involving throwing stones at the police and seeing petrol bombs hurled from the top of high-rise flats. They helped to build barricades made up of planks, old oil drums, paving stones and barbed wire. What fun ! To encourage their dads’ petrol-bombing prowess in hitting their black-coated targets, they found new rhymes to sing: “Throw well, throw Shell’” In the school playground we played “Rioters and Police” with all of us wanting to be the goodies – the rioters, of course and chanting a favourite slogan: “SS RUC.” Our lives were never quite the same, as stones and petrol bombs gave way to shooting and violent death. We did not know we were going through the process of losing our childhood, of losing our innocence, of being thrust into history and a welter of violence which we neither requested nor enjoyed. That’s why I’m obsessed.
The seeds of peace took a long time to germinate. My Father survived working in the midst of violence and remained the gentlest of men, both in word and deed. The lad with the bullet wound in the back ? He, too, survived. My school, you would be forgiven for thinking, must have become a nest of violent upbringing ? Quite the contrary. It now boasts of two Nobel Laureates, one of them for Peace. My own family now hears of bombs and bullets only through my stories that seem almost ancient history for them.
In the darkest days of my young memory, I listened to my mother praying for peace every day. She prayed, not just for the dead or injured, but for the mother of every person killed, because she could feel their sorrow. She never doubted that peace would come. Sadly, it came 10 years too late for her.
Her hope of peace never wavered. Perhaps she could sense that the future would bring the most unlikely of partnerships formed between previously bitter enemies. Her hope that her children, grown used to the sound of explosions and gunfire, would bring up their children to know the sound of peace, has come true. She would be pleased that disputes would be resolved by discourse, not force. That people would not lose their lives because of the church they attended or the job they chose to do. That old misunderstandings would begin to be resolved.
I am proud of where I come from and of the city’s history since its founding in the 6th century, to its stout walls and ancient buildings. I am proud of its location, of the fabulous views across Lough Foyle and out to the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. Proud, too, of the different communities, going back centuries, whose traditions and shared history make my hometown what it is. Its people have not been broken by violence and mayhem. We have a way to go, but we are getting there.
At a time when violence seems to grow more common every day, whether in the streets of Gandhi’s Mumbai or in the seemingly unending tragedies unfolding daily in Palestine and Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East, I can only offer one thought: “Hope.” When needless death clouds a country, its cities, its people, Hope must never be allowed to be extinguished. In the darkest of hours, the seed of peace may be sown. It was so in Ireland, where the most dreadful of deeds resulted in the beginnings of a dialogue between enemies. Good can be harvested from the evil that is violence.
Not an advocate of violence in any way, nor of violent men, my father knew what Presidents may not – that, through discourse between enemies and the uncovering of common ground, old hatreds can begin to be overcome, barriers brought down and the basis for a lasting Peace can be established.