The beating heart of Julieann Campbell’s powerful and moving history of Bloody Sunday is in the accounts given by those who were there when the paratroopers opened fire on the marchers. Although these events happened 50 years ago, the memories are raw and visceral.
Joe Friel remembers "the sheer unadulterated terror on people's faces" as the shooting got louder and the crowd, screaming and shouting, surged about in chaos trying to find cover. Jimmy Toye remembers the steam rising from the pool of blood around Barney McGuigan's head. Geraldine McGuigan remembers hearing a man she later learned was Paddy Doherty shouting, "I don't want to die on my own – oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph help me!" Danny Gillespie remembers "the ground lifting around me from the shots" and, as he ran, wounded, "jelly-like blood running across my face and into my eyes". Hugh McMonagle remembers walking around in a trance. "I was there, but there was nothing coming to me." Then someone said to him, "They're all dead . . . They shot them all." He sat down on a kerb: "I couldn't fathom it."
Many have since tried to fathom that appalling day. Something irrevocable happened. A deep wound was inflicted that will not fully heal. There have been two inquiries, countless media reports, significant books, films, poems and plays. And yet the profound silence that fell over Derry in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, and that everyone remembers, has never entirely been dispelled. It is impossible to argue with Lord Saville’s 2010 conclusion to his report on the inquiry into Bloody Sunday that he chaired. Bloody Sunday was, he wrote, “a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland”.
The strength of this important new book lies in the artistry its author brings to the tasks of portraying both the community upon which the massacre was perpetrated and the individuals within it, before, during and after the events of January 30th, 1972. As an oral historian, Campbell takes the voices of marchers, leaders, family members, doctors, priests and others and works her materials like a woman knitting an Aran jumper, using a complicated pattern to create something that looks in the end simply beautiful.
The book is animated by nothing less than love. The people of Derry are Campbell's people. She is from one of the Bloody Sunday families – her uncle, Jackie Duddy, was the first of the 13 people who were murdered that day. He was just 17. She grew up hearing stories of his prowess as a teenage boxing champion, witnessing her mother's grief, and her aunt and uncle's activism as campaigners.
Like many other children of those that marched that day, Campbell grew up in a home in which discussion of politics was “actively discouraged”, such was the fear that Bloody Sunday had instilled. After all, the thousands of people who set out that Sunday afternoon to march for civil rights, and in protest at the new injustice of internment, had done so with high hopes. They believed their generation might bring an end to the misery of second-class citizenship in the sectarian unionist state.
The book disappoints in just one respect. There are hardly any voices from within Derry’s Protestant community. Diane Greer’s account of her own transition from seeing “13-nil” written on walls in her loyalist area to sitting in a car with one of those bereaved on Bloody Sunday, talking and crying together, is eloquent and important – but there are other accounts from which Campbell could have drawn, and there are other perspectives.
On the road where I grew up, not far from the scene of the Burntollet ambush, a paratroop regiment flag is still, hatefully, flown. Some victims of IRA atrocities complain that huge attention has been given to Bloody Sunday while their suffering has been overlooked. This book could not have been expected to engage deeply with such views – that is not its purpose – but they are part of the story of the legacy of that terrible day and need to be acknowledged.
Campbell provides by way of preamble a useful brief history from the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 to the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre in Belfast, when soldiers of the Parachute Regiment , trained to be ultra-aggressive, showed their willingness to slaughter innocent civilians. Bloody Sunday became, she writes, a pivotal moment in the Troubles, "extinguishing as it did the peaceful civil rights movement and paving the way for decades of violent, deadly conflict". She splices into her accounts of the day, and of the years of lies and denial that followed, memos and documents unearthed by diligent researchers and in many cases aired at the Saville Inquiry.
The people who set out that day to take part in a peaceful protest were walking into a trap. The British army had at its highest levels decided to implement a shoot-to-kill policy in Derry. A cover-up using faked evidence that the shooting had been started by the IRA and that the casualties were gunmen, bombers and rioters had already been planned and was brazenly executed. The British prime minister, Edward Heath, advised Lord Widgery: "We are in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war." Widgery duly produced his report that was labelled a "whitewash". Hurt was heaped upon hurt.
The speakers Campbell includes convey the pride, joy and relief that greeted Lord Saville's declaration that the dead and the injured were innocent and that the army was to blame, and the apology from the British prime minister David Cameron. Some express dismay that the chain of responsibility was not followed "higher up", others anger over decisions that mean no one will be prosecuted.
Julieann Campbell has for years been a leading campaigner for truth and justice for the Bloody Sunday families. She knows the significance of that day in her heart and soul. Her book’s great integrity lies in giving the truth-telling role back to the people about whom the most devastating lies were told.
Susan McKay's latest book is Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground (Blackstaff Press)