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, 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.