Martin McGuinness died last week, one time IRA leader, more recently a British government minister-the irony of even writing that still leaves me a bit incredulous. Inevitably a lot has been written about his ‘journey’ from gunman to peacemaker and his supposed damascene conversion. That as it may be, people like McGuinness don’t appear in an ahistorical vacuum-however much it would seem that way if you had occasion or the misfortune to read much of the coverage on him in much of the British media since last week, and some of the Irish media for that matter. Whatever you think of his actions in the 1970s and 80s, the rotten social and political conditions that produced and formed him were set in stone long before he was even born. And when he came of age, apolitical as most people are at that young age, working class people in his native city of Derry took to the streets to demand civil rights, rights long denied them by a vindictive state that hated and despised them, McGuiness saw them battened and kicked off the streets.
Later he would see them shot and killed by high velocity bullets, fired by an army sent in to ‘keep the peace’ between catholics and protestants. A deliberate fiction set up by that the same state that had sent its soldiers into Derry and Belfast, to obscure the fact that it itself was an active and murderous actor in the Ulster conflict from almost the very beginning. Very little of this context, whatever your views on McGuinness, was discussed, analysed or parsed on British television or in the print media last week-the historical amnesia was breath-taking if not surprising. Instead, McGuinness and the IRA were set up as the main cause of all the violence. It was as if the Troubles and the conditions that lead to it had nothing to do with the actions of the British state, and when the violence got going in earnest in the early 1970s that same state positioned itself as a somehow neutral arbitrator between the warring natives in some kind of grubby post-colonial war. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. The kneejerk and violent militaristic response from that state reached its apex on Bloody Sunday in 1972 in Derry in the Bogside where McGuinness was from, when fourteen people were shot and killed by the parachute regiment and many more were injured, both physically and psychologically. The IRA were no doubt responsible for some horrendous crimes, crimes that cannot and should not be whitewashed, we all know this. But as someone said of McGuinness the war came to his door, not the other way around. This simple historical and factual observation cannot and must not be whitewashed. There isn’t always to sides to every story-sometimes there is just the truth, and sometimes there are just the lies.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’’
As I walked out of the museum of Free Derry a few years ago I tried to remember Milan Kundera’s words, but instead I got them messed up in my head. I couldn’t remember them. I’d just interviewed John Kelly, one of the guardians of the museum, for over four hours. John keeps alive the memory of all those killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972. He works everyday on the site where they were shot and killed, and it’s personal for John, very personal. His seventeen year old brother died from a bullet to the stomach on Bloody Sunday, at seventeen he was the youngest to die:
“It’s embedded in my mind, embedded. Everything which happened in those two or three hours is embedded in my memory. It will never go away, never. It changed everything. For me, there was before Bloody Sunday, and then, there was afterwards.”
The museum John guards is a physical manifestation of the moral necessity of remembering that day’s cataclysmic violence. An attempt to remember the silences imposed on peoples’ experiences by time and traumatised memory, and, most of all, murderous rampage. And of course, if those left behind do not remember who will? It certainly will not be the guilty.
John is intelligent and struck me as incisive in nature — a no nonsense type of guy, with a mischievous and quick sense of humour. Decency and toughness emanate from him in equal measure, he’s also a survivor. I’m sure he would be mortified at being described as being a working-class hero, and a humanitarian hero at that. Nevertheless that is what he is. For four decades he’s been fighting for truth and justice for his family and others, he deserves the title.
A few years ago in an interview with the BBC he described himself as a ‘walking artefact’, a self- description he’s now slightly embarrassed by, yet there’s truth in it. His adult life has been honed and moulded by a 30 minute explosion of state killing forty one years ago in Derry, Northern Ireland.
As a consequence, the search for that day’s many concealed truths has come to dominate much of John’s existence ever since.
And incredibly, against all the odds, thirty eight years later, on the 15th of June, 2010, John’s family and the other ‘Bloody Sunday families’, as they came to be known, achieved something which many thought highly improbable, if not impossible. Collectively they compelled power to reveal some of those many truths and to say sorry by means of a public judicial inquiry.
The political and legal organs of the British state, Tony Blair’s government at the time, initiated the Saville inquiry — which ran from 1998 to 2010 — found that the killings were ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’, and that all the dead were ‘entirely innocent’, after almost forty years of official denial and successive government obfuscation. The Saville Inquiry finally published its findings in June 2010. The report concluded that the paratroopers were responsible for the causing the deaths of 13 people and injury to 14 more, “none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.”
Finally, the veil of pernicious doubt was lifted off the victim’s memories- the veil of guilt, of being bombers, of being terrorists, of being guilty, was consigned to history at last.
Little equivocation on the face of it in the legal language, yet still, the report’s language did not characterise Bloody Sunday either as a massacre, or indeed even as an atrocity.
So, it begs the question: what does constitute a massacre? What is an atrocity? Why is one such event a war crime, the other a terrible ‘tragedy’? Why is one crime an accident, ‘a regrettable mistake’ but rarely a crime against humanity as understood in international legal terms. In truth, does the definition of the act depend on who is committing, and critically, interpreting and disseminating for public consumption, the crime? Surely all highly relevant questions in the early 21st century, as Western powers seem more and more intent on bombing faraway places for ‘humanitarian’ reasons.
Still, the families’ exoneration is a human rights achievement that resonates across the world. Across all conflicts where the innocent are afflicted by state killing, and then left with unresolved anger, embedded and persistent memories, and little or no recourse to justice. The findings of the Saville inquiry stand as a moral and legal precedent for the many hundreds of thousands of dead civilians in El Salvador, East Timor, Sabra and Chatila, and elsewhere, who will almost certainly never extract any acknowledgment of the truth, or even an apology from those responsible.
The families’ very public vindication outside Derry’s Guildhall in 2010 was the result of a communal effort by ordinary people who had to live with the ‘shocked’ memory of half an hour of concentrated state violence for four decades. It was also a cathartic release for a city which had seen the forces of the state kill its own citizens with impunity.
‘Ordinary people’ just like John Kelly: shop assistants, taxi drivers, engineers, butchers, and carpenters- elicited an apology from the state for the shooting of its own citizens. The truth that murderous indiscriminate killing took place was finally acknowledged by power, a truth long known by those who had witnessed it. Almost uniquely, they compelled power to confront and apologise for its sins, and even more exceptionally, to publicly remember them.
The Political and the Personal
In Derry, on the 30th of January 1972, at about ten past four in the evening as dusk approached, four working class men frantically carried the slumped body of a seventeen year old boy who had just been shot in the back out of the vengeful mouth of Chamberlain Street. Blood poured from the boy’s mouth. A middle-aged woman wearing a cream coloured head scarf tentatively directed them towards army lines. Echoing bursts of staccato gunfire engulfed them. Monotonous helicopter blades cut the sky wide open as cordite lingered threateningly. Like gunfire, someone shouts, “hold your fire’’. Another snarled, “get away ya buck eejit ye,’’ in the distinctive local accent. Another, “get away ya bastard,’’ to a soldier. The soldier confronts the group, aggression in his stance, finger on his gun’s trigger. A hand-held camera, zigzagging nervously, panning in and out, captures the tension. Suddenly, a fifth man runs into the scene and immediately cradles the boy’s dangling left arm, he says something to the soldier but it’s not audible. They turn right up Harvey Street, a steep, narrow Victorian lane built in the nineteenth century, all the while surrounded by other soldiers with blackened faces carrying SLRs (self-loading rifles), some of the guns still aimed at the dying boy. A few seconds later they laid the boy’s body on Waterloo Street, a commercial thoroughfare near the heart of the city centre named after a British military victory over Napoleon in 1815.
In front of the group, a balding catholic priest in his mid-thirties with a diffident country face waved a bloodied white handkerchief, a smart black hat in his other hand, his crouching body-language terrified. He looks a lot like an archetypal Irish priest from a saccharine 1940s Hollywood film, horrendously out of place in the paroxysm of violence let loose all around him. Think Bing Crosby in Going My Way or Spencer Tracy in Boystown perhaps, the kind of priest Irish grandmothers loved, the kind of Irish priest you could be proud of-brave, dignified, and compassionate.
By the end of the day the priest would anoint many more of the dead and would have their dried gelatinous blood on his black clerical clothes as he walked home to his presbytery in the encroaching winter darkness.
There, on the cold pavement of Waterloo street, outside McHugh’s shop- surrounded by a BBC film crew, British soldiers, international journalists, and local men and women with flat caps and head scarves who had come out of their two-storey, red-bricked, working class houses to help-the promising young amateur boxer died of gunshot wounds, fired by a soldier from the elite parachute regiment moments earlier. Father Edward Daly anxiously said an act of contrition- the catholic prayer for repentance for the dead- for the deceased boy. It only took a matter of minutes from the time the boy was shot in the Bogside to his death on the street named to commemorate a famous military victory. Jackie Duddy was 17.
The whole scene was captured in photographs, virtually still by still, and also on live film, in grainy black and white and in monochrome 1970s colour. It is one of the most iconic and enduring images, not only of Bloody Sunday and the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, but also of urban conflict and civilian death in the late 20th century- a visual tableau perfectly capturing the fundamental essence of the day: the killing of the innocent, the naive and the unlucky, and ordinary people performing extraordinary heroics under constant gunfire. The scene has been shown thousands of times in documentaries and news reports such is its dramatic and shocking power to signify the early years of the Ulster conflict in shorthand and in graphic form. Along with the stark images of a terrified naked young chemical on her skin caused by napalm bombing in 1972; Sarajevo citizens skirting Serbian snipers and a lottery of death in 1993 in ‘sniper alley’; and the Palestinian man and his dead son in the Gaza strip horrifically stranded in the middle of a gun battle in 2000, it is one of the most potent images of the impact of war on the innocent and defenceless. It is visceral, immediate and harrowing and it is burned into the collective consciousness of Derry, Ireland, and Britain.
Although we may want to, we cannot avert our eyes from these images. They’re too compelling, too real for that. Maybe that’s the attraction, the hyper reality and intensity of human suffering. We see it, but are not directly affected by it. There is an emotional and psychological detachment between what we see on screen- urban warfare- and what most of us will probably never experience, at least in the West. But it’s also a dark attraction, almost a guilty attraction even; after all it’s not us suffering. Yet, we would do best to remember these images in the early 21st century where there is much artificial light and chattering noise obscuring and camouflaging official crimes.
Watching the twenty four second scene on the internet in preparation for this story it never loses its power to shock, or to instill in me a sense of dreaded anticipation about what is coming next. It was after all merely scene one of the killing fields of Bloody Sunday. More killing by well-armed and well trained killers will inexorably unfold in the next few scenes. Soldiers trained to defend the state, now exposing a civilian population to indiscriminate lethal force. The body count will grow. ‘Kills’ will be made. Derry on ‘that day’ was transformed into a micro Vietnam, a micro Chechnya, a micro Fallujah. Or, indeed, the ‘collateral aftermath’ of a drone hit on a Yemeni village against the inevitable and ubiquitous ‘suspected Al-Qaeda militants’- as much of our unsuspecting western media would have it. The rules for who is a legitimate target, and who is not, have been blurred to meaninglessness by 21st century war technology. The armies may be different from Bloody Sunday; but the innocent civilians are always the same- all the dead share moral equivalence.
Twenty-six people were shot on Bloody Sunday, 13 died almost instantly, one elderly man later died of his injuries, and two others were run down and seriously injured by army tanks. Hundreds were either beaten or arrested. Thousands more would be traumatised by what they saw and a grim crime against humanity was compounded by years of official denial from London — after all, a propaganda war was also being fought according to the British prime minister of the day, Edward Heath. As it was then so it is today in propaganda nothing changes, methods are just perfected. The collective memories of thousands of people-15 thousand were on the march-were violently ruptured and transformed. Things could never, ever, be the same again.
British soldiers fired live bullets into crowds of fleeing civilians in the late 20th century. Why is that so shocking? Is it because it’s within living memory and not folk memory? Or because the victims were white and poor and not brown and poor as they usually are.
As a teenager in the 1980s, I walked past the exact place where Bloody Sunday took place thousands of times on my way to see my first serious girlfriend, check out alternative record shops, fail miserably in exams at a nearby technical college, or play pool with friends while skipping school. My friends and I always felt a ripple of danger and nervous anticipation passing by the Bogside where it happened and where antagonism against state authority and its agents ran deeply. There was in the Bogside a complete loss of faith in the institutions of the state and in constitutional politics. When a riot against the police or the British army broke out, which they frequently did, furious petrol bombs hurtled and twisted through the air and exploded onto already charred and burnt pavement stones. Then, ritualistically, plastic bullets were fired back in return by the army at angry young men in black balaclavas, black doc martin boots and second–hand green army jackets, even the rioters had a battle uniform.
Myself and my mates, Lee, Billy, and Ally would rush back home on the bus, chatter excitedly about what we had seen, and what we thought we had seen, on the short journey home across the border, out of the burning city and back to rural safety in Donegal, a few miles to a quieter Ulster valley. At the border checkpoint young British soldiers, only five or six years older than us, with automatic guns at their sides, often took us off the bus and searched us, which was, of course, huge reputational kudos for young teenage boys.
Billy, the oldest and bravest of us, once said: “I’m only fifteen for fuck’s sake,’’ ‘‘old enough to carry a gun in this bastard of a place mate,’’ the Cockney soldier bit back. We laughed nervously, and so did the soldier. A few years later, Billy’s uncle, a local politician, was shot dead by a loyalist paramilitary gang — one of the many gangs of self-appointed tin soldiers around at the time.
Much of the rioting, most of the time, was ritualistic, a symbolic stand-off between opposing protagonists. But then sometimes, as if to sharply pierce the relative calm, grotesque violence reappeared again. When Stephen Mcconomy, a young boy of eleven was killed by a plastic bullet fired by a soldier in April 1982, he was only a year younger than I was at the time; we were less brave and much more cautious about going near the Bogside. In that part of Derry there was a well of deep sorrow, sometimes almost tangible, in the streets and alleys of Bloody Sunday. Its resonance was everywhere-in the rectangular red bricks of the little houses, on the faded pub doors, seeping up from the charred pavements; its terrible injustice dripping off the city’s thick medieval walls, and most tellingly of all, etched on the faces of the people.
Yet somehow, there was always in my mind an unbridgeable gap between my own mostly commonplace reality and the seismic political violence that was ‘that day’. I couldn’t reconcile my own prosaic normality with the enormity of what happened there in those little streets in 1972.
And yet, growing up in the area in the 1980s, it’s fair to say that I was largely unaware of Bloody Sunday’s critical significance, historically, culturally and politically, for late twentieth century Irish and British history. What is more, it was only recently that I found out that ‘that day’ had any personal meaning or significance for me.
The BBC cameraman filming the iconic events on bloody Sunday was Cyril Cave -a Belfast Protestant with a dark acerbic humour, a young man but already a veteran of death and destruction erupting on his native streets. Alongside him was one of the BBC’s top reporters in the 1970s, John Bierman, a London Jew with craggy film star looks, also a veteran of conflicts in the Middle-East, Cyprus and elsewhere. He later wrote the definitive book on Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during WWII, introducing to the English-speaking world one of the few bona fide diplomatic heroes to have emerged from the Holocaust.
The third and by far the most inexperienced member of the media crew was sound recordist Jim Deeney, a young catholic man in his early twenties from North Belfast, on one of his very first assignments for the BBC. In the following years, Jim would go on to capture some of the worst moments of the Irish ‘Troubles’, an anodyne euphemism if ever there was one for the emerging violence, as both sound-man, and later, as a camera man. It would take its toll on him both professionally, and personally. The father of his common in law wife was shot dead a few years later in a busy city centre restaurant in Derry by the INLA — a republican paramilitary group with revolutionary Marxist pretensions. The young gunman had possibly experienced Bloody Sunday first-hand, or heard about it from friends and relatives of the dead who were there. Derry is a small city, less than one hundred thousand people. Northern Ireland is a small place, about 1.7 million people. The great injustice and violence of Bloody Sunday reverberated, poisoned and fed the conflict for years.
Jim got the BBC job through his father’s connections. His father Cecil was the first catholic journalist to be employed by the traditionally protestant newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph, quite a feat in dour and socially and politically unenlightened 1950s Northern Ireland. Cecil was a legend in the media maelstrom of early 70s Belfast. A fierce-drinking editor of the BBC’s news department with a brilliant mordant wit honed no doubt by the carnage exploding all around him. He died relatively young at 57, having drunk himself and his great story-telling talent into an early grave. He looked a bit like Seamus Heaney– with his big bushy eye-brows, shock of white hair and big pensive country face, talked a bit like Heaney as well with his droll county Derry accent.
Jim is my first cousin and godfather, over twenty five years older than me, although he was more like an uncle then. Even as a young boy, instinctively, I knew he was someone who had seen too much. I grew up about 8 miles across the border from Derry city in Donegal in the Irish Republic. I experienced the violence that Jim and Cecil saw mostly second hand, mediated by black and white television and bleak newspaper images. In some ways right beside it, in others, a thousand miles away from Derry’s urban conflict set, as it was, in 1960’s high-rise flats, working-class housing estates, and a bombed-out commercial city centre.
Occasionally we heard the more powerful explosions coming from the neighbouring valley and particularly if they went off at night when sound travels better. It was a vicarious thrill to hear one go off it didn’t occur to me that someone’s body may have been blown to smithereens-as they often literally were. On the 24th October 1990, Patsy Gillespie, a first cousin to friends of my parents, was forced at gunpoint by the IRA into a van, 1,000 lbs of explosives was already packed into the van. He drove the ‘proxy bomb’ to a British army border checkpoint, where it was blown up by remote control killing him and five soldiers. By 1990 moral certainty and absolutist conviction were left only for the ideologues, everyone else had been compromised by reality, and left to make sense of what now had become the ‘imaginable’.
In 21st century Irish history it is commonplace to say that Bloody Sunday changed everything, utterly. In Ulster, before Bloody Sunday, 200 people were killed since the conflict began in 1969. For the rest of 1972 after Bloody Sunday, almost 500 were shot or knifed to death, blown up by bombs, and many thousands more injured. In total, almost four thousand would eventually be killed in the Troubles, over half of them innocent civilians. In addition over forty-seven thousand were injured, there were almost thirty seven-thousand shootings, and over sixteen thousand bombings took place.
For perspective, if a comparable conflict had taken place in France, there would have been approximately 160 thousand deaths, and almost two million injured. Of course dry facts tell us little of the damage to peoples’ ‘hearts and minds’. Jim as a young cameraman filmed the after effects of many of those deaths. Firemen scooping up charred human remains on the afternoon of Bloody Friday, when the IRA exploded 22 bombs in 90 minutes, in Belfast in July 1972; and dead catholic and protestant, British and Irish bodies in city alleys and country lanes all through the 1970s, 80s and 90s. What that does to the human soul can only be guessed at for someone like me who has never experienced such violent death close hand. I didn’t think to ask him about it, probably no one in the family did. It wasn’t indifference or callousness it’s just that in Irish families there are some things you don’t ask, or even think to ask. For a people with a history of tragedy and violence we have not developed an emotional vocabulary to deal with its consequences. Mostly, we still haven’t. Instead, what can’t be said is mostly sung, there’s no shame in that.
At around the same time as Jim was recording gunfire ricocheting off walls and pavements and puncturing young bodies, twenty-three year old John Kelly, terrified and perplexed, was running up Rossville Street parallel with Chamberlain Street because he’d just heard that the army were firing lead bullets. Scene two was now unfolding. Although John didn’t know it yet, nearby, his seventeen year old brother had been shot in the stomach and was slowly dying. John, terrified for his life as many thousands were, ran into the rebellious outpost of the Bogside away from live gun fire aimed at marchers during a civil rights rally.
That last sentence should be read twice to let it sink in- it should give us pause for thought. Given what we now know from books, government tribunals, documentaries, and declassified government papers. The facts are not in doubt or seriously questioned by anyone seriously interested in the truths of Bloody Sunday. The systematic brutality of ‘that day’ has been forensically documented and verified many times over, not least by the Saville inquiry- a twelve year public inquiry consisting of fourteen thousand pages of legal argument, 900 oral witness statements, and over fourteen million words of oral evidence-the largest inquiry of its kind in international legal history. As a result, the Bloody Sunday killings are now some of the most scrutinised in human history. John, seeking the truth of his brother’s murder, attended almost every day of the evidence, testimonies and hearings, day after day, and year after year.
Yet still, it is shocking. British soldiers fired live bullets into crowds of fleeing civilians in the late 20th century. Why is that so shocking? Is it because it’s within living memory and not folk memory? Or because the victims were white and poor and not brown and poor as they usually are. Or was it because Bloody Sunday happened in ‘real time’ and captured by TV cameras. An hour and a half after the killings ended, at approximately six o’ clock, Jim and his BBC colleagues rushed back to Belfast to transfer the exposed film from a camera magazine to a film can in the studio. They quickly processed the visual evidence ready for a live BBC broadcast at nine that evening. Within a few hours of the massacre millions were exposed to it, even if it was through the ‘impartial and objective’ prism of the state broadcaster.
Millions saw soldiers pointing guns and shooting at civilians in an Irish city on the edge of the British state. A situation notably unlike today’s unremitting t 24 hour televisual landscape where government rhetoric and media complicity manipulate reality, and often obscure the brutal truths of modern military massacres. Then again, it may well be that we are now anaesthetised and desensitized by decades of fictionalised killings for entertainments sake. Our cultures are by now saturated by these images of fake death. Still, I wonder if we saw the real thing night after night, body after body, blood spill after every blood stain on our TV and computer screens, would we be so insipid, would we be so numb?
They must have thought they were in Amritsar or Sharpeville as a friend of my father remarked caustically the day after the massacre. Yet for all its political and social faults, the 1970s Ulster statelet was not apartheid South Africa, however rotten and dysfunctional it may have been. Neither was it Suharto’s Indonesia or Deng Xiaoping’s Tiananmen Square for that matter-the Troubles did not reach that level, scope or intensity of violence. Although at times the political and military authorities made enough disastrous decisions to make it seem as if the conflict could escalate out of control and become a full blown civil war on the western edge of social democratic Europe. That is by militarising a conflict that needed political foresight and social justice (don’t they all), and not draconian policies such as internment without trial -the de facto suspension of the judicial system- and the subsequent and wholly predictable human rights abuses which followed. Internal security policies for example, were enforced by an army with a colonial mind-set who had been trained in counter-insurgency in Aden, Cyprus and Kenya. Policies which in turn radicalised thousands of brutalised young people to create, to paraphrase Nietzsche: a monster to fight a monster. The conflict subsequently unfolded as a classic dirty war of low-intensity insurgency and counter insurgency. Even today its embers still flicker, and every now and again, spark and threaten to reignite.
A few minutes later, when the shooting subsided for a moment, John Kelly crouched and hiding behind a wall in the Bogside was told by a friend that his brother had been shot forty yards away. His nervous system animated and exercised he made a dash across the line of fire to seek him. As he ran, the shooting started up again. Bullets whistled above his head. He crouched down behind another wall for cover. There was another lull in the shooting. He tried again, only to be shot at again this time from higher up by snipers positioned on the city’s medieval walls. Despite being only a matter of feet away from where four people were shot dead in one of the killing zones, John didn’t see anyone being shot. He thinks maybe he has blanked it out of his mind, his psyche has erased the images, he can’t remember. It is not that he has forgotten, it’s just that he just cannot remember. Either way, he doesn’t remember experiencing any fear either, only adrenalin. Finally, the shooting stopped completely:
“What happened on Bloody Sunday completely changed me you know, I’m not saying violent wise or anything like that. I’m not violent, I never was violent, but it completely changed my perspective on life and not only through the death of Michael, but how it affected my family as well, you know.’’
At about 4.30, the shooting stopped completely. An ambulance tentatively made its way through army lines. Michael Kelly’s body, with two others-one dead and the other seriously injured-were carried into the ambulance by stunned local people. John helped however he could:
“We put Michael on the right-hand side, Joe Mahon was in the middle, on the floor, and Gerry McKinney was on the left…I could still see Michael’s face you know, the colour of him and so on, and me going to check on him to see if he was still alive or not, and I don’t know if he was or not, truthfully. If he wasn’t dead, he was very, very close to death… we went down Rossville street towards the paratroopers and [they] stopped the ambulance.’’
At this stage, even after over forty years, John visibly tenses up as he remembers. “I shouted to them, ‘get to fuck’, I said, ‘get to fuck’, this is my brother, we’re trying to get him to hospital.’’
The doctor in the treatment room pronounced Michael dead moments after they arrived at the hospital. John asked him to check him again to be sure; the doctor looked at him and told him he was sorry, but your brother’s dead. Later, the soldiers who committed the killings arrived at the hospital and unceremoniously dumped three lifeless bodies out of an armoured car onto the casualty floor. At this stage John, incandescent with cold rage, a rage he‘d never known before, noticed that one of the soldiers had gone into a toilet and nonchalantly left his SLR rifle outside, up against a wall. John thought about going in after him, to do what he wasn’t sure, he wasn’t thinking straight. His brother in law told him who had just arrived, “no, don’t, for fuck’s sake you’ll be killed too.’’ Luckily, he took John away.
Not long afterwards after many frenetic phone calls, John’s father and sister arrived at the hospital. Father and son met in the corridor. “Da, Michael’s dead.’’ John’s father slid slowly down the wall of the corridor, crying desperately.
The next night the father bought a bottle of whisky and sat at the kitchen table all night, drinking slowly to try and blank it all out. At the wake house, John’s heavily sedated mother was distraught. Later that night, at about three o’ clock in the morning, while John and his brothers’ in law sat beside Michael’s open coffin, keeping vigil –staying ‘awake’- as is the tradition in Irish culture, his mother burst into the room shouting, “Michael son, Michael son’’. Kathleen Kelly lifted her son’s body up out of the coffin with both arms, overcome with grief. Years later, late at night during an unforgiving winter, as snow began to fall heavily in Derry, Mrs Kelly took a warm, thick blanket and made her way down from her home to the cemetery overlooking the deserted streets were her son had been shot and killed. There, where her son Michael lay buried, worried that he may be get cold, she laid the blanket over his grave, staying for a while amongst the headstones and stone crosses talking quietly to her son, beside herself, and her son, with grief.
On the walls of the Free Derry museum is a life-sized replica of Guernica– Picasso’s artistic and moral testimony to the brutal destruction of innocent civilians by aerial bombardment in 1937 during the Spanish civil war. A war crime committed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe as a ‘favour’ to Franco, and as vital training for his expanding and as yet inexperienced air force. If ever an image embodied the violence inflicted on the innocent it is Guernica with all its fractured chaos and disembodied human and animal appendages. It is an inspired and emblematic political statement to hang Guernica on the outside walls of the museum. Maybe in forty years it will also hang in another street to bear in mind other massacres: Kalmunai in Sri Lanka 1990, Dilli in East Timor 1991, Fallujah 2003, Gaza 2008/09, when we are far enough away not to upset the guilty too much. The painting stands on the wall of the museum facing Glenfada Park directly above where a young unemployed electrician, 22 year old Jim Wray, was shot in the back as he lay dying from an earlier bullet. His grandparents, terrified and unaware of their grandson’s death, crouched down in a house only a few feet away. A few minutes later three others were also executed in the park.
There is an evocative story about Guernica, perhaps apocryphal. A Nazi officer, searching Picasso’s apartment in Paris in 1942, came across the painting and agitatedly turned to the subversive painter and accused him: “Did you do this?” Picasso replied impassively, “No, you did.”
I said goodbye to John Kelly, he’d impressed me with his innate humanity and honesty in spite of everything he’d been through, and I wished him well. For a moment I stood outside the museum and looked at Guernica, local kids played ball nearby. To my left a police car drove by slowly, caught in evening traffic. The blond headed officers seemed relaxed enough, how times change I thought. Not that long ago, they probably would have been shot at, or somebody could easily have thrown a bomb at their car. The cascading anger imprinted on these streets by Bloody Sunday has subsided enough to allow a version of normality to reappear, helped no doubt by an admission of the truth by the Saville inquiry’s findings.
Or at least part of the truth. Only the soldiers on the ground on the day of the massacre were found to be responsible for the killings, although none of them as of yet have been held to account in a criminal trial. Those higher up in the chain of command-army generals, politicians, prime ministers- were deemed not to be culpable by the report, and were therefore absolved of responsibility. Of course, this is not unusual; there is a litany of examples: My Lai and Abu Ghraib, and no doubt thousands of other similar cases of military massacres and transgressions where the buck stopped at a low pay grade lower, down the chain of command. The ‘bad apple’ or ‘rogue element’ theory of allocating responsibility and guilt predictably applied in all cases. In other words, some at least it seems, are always above reproach, and justice.
I walked out of Glenfada Park and crossed Rossville Street and retraced as best I could the probable footsteps of my cousin on Bloody Sunday. Two minutes from the museum, I found the spot where he must have stood beside the BBC cameraman and reporter on the rising incline of Harvey Street at the junction with Chamberlain Street. In what would be a embryonic baptism of fire, he and his colleagues were suffocated and choked by CS gas discharged by the army, then beaten up by angry locals while filming a gunshot victim, and later would nearly be shot themselves as they turned into a side alley while filming the shooting –luckily the high velocity bullet, aimed straight at them, hit the wall instead. Such are the vagaries of history, if that badly aimed bullet would have hit one of them, much of the iconic film footage of Bloody Sunday would not have been taken, and much of the world would not have seen the shocking images.
The street has changed remarkably little since 1972. In fact, incredibly, almost nothing has changed. Houses, lamp-posts, doors, windowsills, weather-beaten red brick walls, even the lines on the road seem the same after forty one years. It’s a quiet day, not many about. I stand for a moment and think about the resonant ghosts of conflict on this ordinary Derry street-discordant echoes, broken hearts, fractured memories-which must be embedded in the walls and windows of Chamberlain Street, and also on the other nearby streets and lanes of Bloody Sunday. I walked up to Waterloo Street a few seconds away and found the spot where the young boxer died, and where the priest anointed him. Father Daly then rushed off to tend more of the dying and wounded, a man with the ‘holy spirit’ in him on a terrible day. Busy shoppers pass by; they’re oblivious to me looking down at the pavement and then back down to the Bogside. I wondered if they’re also oblivious to the recent violent history of these streets, and realised they’re almost certainly not. In this part of town, as in all places where the innocent have been killed indiscriminately by unrestrained military and political power, they have long memories, and they do not forget
Mark Kernan is a Freelance Writer and Independent Researcher. Follow him @markkernan1