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 mindset 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 awhile 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 power, they have long memories, and they do not forget.