A Belfast emigrant remembers Bloody Sunday
Forty-two years after the shootings, Patrick McKenna recalls where he was when he heard the news
If “the past is another country”, then 1972 is a very far off one, but one that has been hard for me to leave, even after so many years as an emigrant.
I spent January 1972 writing up my thesis for a master’s degree in chemistry in the brand new science library of the Queens University in Belfast. It was the most enjoyable month of my five years at university. In a small, freshly painted room, filled with sunlight, I sat quietly, writing up my results, conclusions and references. Catalysis and Kinetics: it was fascinating stuff. On Friday, January 28th at lunchtime, my write up was finished and so were my university years.
At that time I lived in a residence along with 20 other science and engineering students most hailing from Northern Ireland’s provincial towns. In the residence, as in the chemistry department, as a Catholic, I am the odd man out. This really didn’t bother me, my thing was (and still is) learning. Sunday would be my last day in the residence. Monday, as they say, would be “the first day of the rest of my life”.
Back then I had no thoughts of emigrating. My thoughts were focused on the scary business of finding a job. I knew strictly nothing about how to go about that task. For five years I had absorbed the most abstract knowledge imaginable but nothing – nada – on how to wrote a sensible job application or handle myself in a interview. And the UK economy wasn’t exactly in good shape either.
That Sunday, when I pull back the curtains, I see a heavy overcast sky overhead. Rain slashes diagonal streaks across my bedroom window. In the kitchen, I make my breakfast of toast and tea and listen to the radio. There’s some news about a Civil Rights march in Derry, which I didn’t think too much about. Since 1968, there had been so many marches and demonstrations.
During my university years I saw marches morph into riots and bus burnings, petrol bombs morph into nail, then car, then truck, bombs. Shootings led to arms searches then No Go areas, then Operation Motorman, the Maidstone, and Internment. Within the walls of the chemistry department, as I learned about valences, unpaired electrons, and entropy, outside, on the streets, a small, once peaceful, world, was having the life strangled out of it by violent men.
At lunchtime, on the radio, there is more news from Derry. The marchers are stopped at police and army lines. There is some talk of a route change. Again I pay little attention. From worrying about jobs, I have moved to worrying about sleeping in a bunk bed, sharing a bedroom in the family home, with three of my younger brothers.
After my lunch I take a mug of tea into the TV lounge. There is only one free armchair, a lumpy, threadbare, green, thing in the middle of the room. I slump into it to watch an old black and white movie on BBC. Around me, my fellow students sit morosely, many of them looking worse for wear after another Saturday night in the Student Union bar. Outside, the rain still lashes against the window.
It’s just another dark, rainy, boring, January afternoon until the movie disappears, gives way to a BBC news announcer. Looking solemn, he reads carefully from a sheet of paper. “We interrupt our program for a special announcement. British paratroopers have shot 13 men in Derry. It is not known how many are dead…”
Suddenly the texture of the day changes; I watch, horrified, the images from Derry; women screaming, people running, as they attempt to recover bloodied, inert, bodies. Ambulances arrive, and leave, with their blue lights flashing. A priest is waving a white handkerchief, talking to some soldiers, their blackened faces shocked, their rifles pointed at him. Since 1969, a lot of bad things had happened in Northern Ireland, but this was way beyond all previous levels of violence.
My mind goes blank. I didn’t know what to think. Then, as I struggle to make sense of what I was seeing on the screen, my fellow students leap to their feet; they break into applause, there is much handclapping, and cheering – just as football fans do when their team scores a goal in an important match.
All I can think is “What sort of people are these? What sort of madhouse am I living in?” I get up, leave the residence and wander around the city centre for a few hours. The next morning I move back to my parents’ house. In case you are wondering, I didn’t, and don’t, feel any animosity towards my fellow students. Sadness, yes; pity, yes; anger, no.
The following Sunday I am at mass. After the reading of the gospel, the priest starts to talk about Bloody Sunday. The packed church is deeply silent. After a few minutes, the priest’s voice breaks. The words stop. I see him lower his head. He is crying; the only sound in the church, is his sobbing. Three years later, on January 31st, 1975, I left for Canada.
On my emigrant journey, people would tell me how they remembered exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot. I had to reply I didn’t. I didn’t explain that I do remember exactly where I was on January 30th 1972, and on the Sunday after, when our priest cried, for all of us.