Why would a mother bring her son to be shot?
In 2012 Majella O’Donnell brought her teenager to a paramilitary punishment shooting in Derry
“So there was a knock at the door and I was told to bring Phil down a laneway behind the shops in Creggan. I brought him there and I went back out of the laneway and heard him being told to put his hands against the wall, he was shot and then he screamed for me. I ran back and a crowd joined me. I couldn’t use a mobile to call for help because I was shaking so much but eventually an ambulance came.”
This was how Majella O’Donnell described to me how she had brought her teenage son Philly to be shot in the legs in Derry, April 2012.
The shooting had taken place after months of negotiation between Majella, Philly, his shooters and mediators based out of the Rosemount Resource Centre, a Derry based community centre that carries out typical community-based activities such as assisting older people but also plays a role mediating between local residents and armed groups.
A warning was issued that the device would explode after 45 minutes but it went off after just 20
Philly had been accused by local dissident Republican groups of drug-dealing. In conversation with me – in research for a documentary on the family and the shooting – Philly said he had sold drugs to supply his own habit. He was also accused of trouble-making and denigrating the armed groups on Facebook.
Majella was a worn-out woman when we first met in July 2012. She was on anti-anxiety medication. Her hands shook as we spoke. Philly was furious with her and threatening revenge. She was estranged from her eldest son James who was soon to be sentenced for drug dealing.
Majella’s husband, Philly Senior, was in jail. In 2010 he had kidnapped a taxi driver, placed a bomb in the boot of his car and instructed him to drive to Strand Road police station. A warning was issued that the device would explode after 45 minutes but it went off after just 20. No-one was injured but it caused widespread damage. Philly Senior was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment.
Among Majella’s most troubling concerns was for her youngest son, Kevin-Barry, who was 11. He was funny and lively, but clearly marked by the violence of the preceding months.
Still at war
Majella and I had been introduced by Hugh Brady, the lead mediator from the Rosemount team and a former IRA prisoner. His community, he said, didn’t believe in the police or the UK government. They didn’t agree with the Good Friday Agreement. They were still at war.
During those initial meetings both Hugh Brady and Majella spoke for hours at a time to me, seemingly without any inhibition. They were beguiling, idealistic, warm and humorous, but also crafty and evasive. Moreover, they were part of a community that lived according to their own laws, despite being within the jurisdiction of the UK.
Before I came to Derry I thought that the story of Philly’s shooting could be the basis of a short current affairs film but it became obvious that the story was too big – it would eventually take five years to make the feature documentary.
I began regular visits to Derry. Philly had been placed “under threat” again, and I met Darren O’Reilly, a young community worker who was working to have the threat withdrawn.
Darren was highly articulate about the community’s problems. The Good Friday Agreement had not solved everything, in his view. Mental-health issues associated with post-traumatic stress disorder were prevalent, and these were compounded by a severe shortage of employment opportunities.
Hugh Brady spoke at length to me about his IRA activities, claiming to have once been Martin McGuinness’s deputy. He said he was expelled from the Republican movement for possession of drugs, but believed it had more to do with his wanting a different kind of ceasefire. Despite his seniority, he had been “painted” – a variation of tarring and feathering and a humiliation that took him years to get over.
Distrust of the police was universal in the community. Hugh said he “would rather be dead” than help them, and that this attitude was a “gene” within this community.
Majella was just as strident. She had “never” considered calling the police. The April appointment had actually been the second time she had brought her son to be shot. The police had intercepted her taxi when she tried to leave the house to do so the first time.
After the shooting, Philly O’Donnell’s struggle continued. He was “banished” by the armed groups to a safe house in Belfast in 2013. In their opinion, his behaviour hadn’t improved and he was under threat again. In Belfast, he attempted to sort out his drug problem. He admitted that his partying was out of control and described sessions that had lasted six or seven days until he had seen “snakes with people’s heads”.
After months of negotiations Philly was allowed home, but was placed under curfew by the armed groups. They took his phone away and he was drug tested regularly. The threats, however, continued.
It was during this period, according to Majella, that he first started talking of suicide. It was a familiar subject. Other friends had taken their lives. (More people have died by suicide in Northern Ireland during the Troubles than were killed through violence.) There was an increasing sense of doom in the house. Kevin-Barry, too, had become more withdrawn.
Philly’s partying escalated again and he was accused of throwing bottles at a local IRA leader. He denied this, saying they were “demonising” him. The paramilitaries, he said, were allowing certain drug dealers to operate and the police were allowing certain people to be shot.
Philly also railed against Hugh, Darren and the Rosemount Centre, and accused them of being in league with the shooters. “They’re all just hoods with guns.”
Two years after Majella O’Donnell brought her son to be shot, her perspective had changed significantly. She believed that she should haven’t done it. “It just made everything worse,” she said.
The O’Donnells broke off contact with me shortly after Philly received the threat about the bottle throwing.
I stayed in touch with Hugh Brady, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer but was still involved with the Rosemount Centre. He continued to warn that time was running out for Philly, and now, he had heard that Kevin-Barry was causing trouble and that it “mightn’t be the worst thing if he was to get a fright”.
For an outsider, it was always hard to know how much to believe in the community. Some stories were true, some were obvious exaggerations but sometimes the difference didn’t matter. Reputation was all-important in a place where official narratives were so distrusted.
Stories were an effective way of boosting or undermining the status of other community members. A rumour had a way of becoming a fact. To identify a trouble-maker was to confirm them in that role.
Four masked men bearing guns walked towards us. As they came closer they raised their guns to the camera and crouched down
The community had a deep-seated fear of authority. I was told that their phones and computers were under surveillance and that mine would be too. It became difficult to know if this was true.
Early in the film-making process I would arrive alone with my small baby. The people I met in Derry showed endless empathy with my dramas. The flip side to this ready intimacy was a lack of formality or organisation.
Over five years no appointment was ever kept, no schedule was adhered to. It seemed the community had grown so accustomed to disorder that they were unconsciously recreating it. As Hugh Brady once said, “when the adrenalin reaches a certain point, it’s very hard to come down.” The chaos was a symptom of the post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hugh Brady spoke sometimes of nighttime patrols by paramilitary units in defiance of the ceasefire. I wondered if it was another exaggeration, until one day in 2015 he called me and told me to come to Derry as he had “something” to show me.
I arrived in late afternoon and was told we would have to wait until darkness as there were unmarked police cars in the area. For the next few hours we sat in a car in a housing estate while Hugh told long stories about his days as a paramilitary volunteer, even referring to himself as the IRA’s navy at one point.
Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, this is how justice still operates in at least one corner of Northern Ireland
A call came, and we were told to drive deeper into an estate.
A masked man gestured at us to pull up and there was a tense and confusing discussion over what my cameraperson, Enda O’Dowd, and I would be allowed to do.
We were then left to wait in the dark. The neighbourhood was silent. Finally Hugh whispered, “that’s them there”.
Four masked men bearing guns walked towards us. As they came closer they raised their guns to the camera and crouched down as if doing military manoeuvres in an ostentatious but eccentric show of force. I approached one of them and asked if I could put a question to him. He shook his head.
After a minute or so, they turned around and disappeared down a laneway. Immediately locals came out onto the street and began to discuss what had happened. I heard someone ask Hugh about the “video” and it all began to seem like a show until suddenly, someone heard a woman crying.
She was Christine Allen. Her brother Andrew had been shot dead three years previously. She thought they were coming for her. Hugh went in to her house and reassured her. We left shortly afterwards.
The incident showed how events in that community could be both absurd and artificial, yet also troubling and real.
Later I interviewed one of the gunmen. He insisted that “Philly was an architect of his own misfortune.”
Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, this is how justice still operates in at least one corner of Northern Ireland.
A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot is released in cinemas nationwide from September 14th. www.amotherbrings.com