IrelandBloody Friday Bombings

Fifty years on and mark of trauma of 1972 bombings has not faded

‘There’s things that are gone that you can’t get back. It makes you wonder what could have been’

Waking up each morning, Philip Gault looks at what remains of his foot and thinks back to being a nine-year-old boy humming a tune while walking down the Antrim Road in Belfast.

It’s 50 years since he leaned against a car containing an IRA bomb, one of the first of 22 devices that exploded across the city in just under two hours on July 21st, 1972.

The day became known as Bloody Friday and on the eve of its anniversary, there is only one place he wants to meet.

Tucked away in a leafy north Belfast suburb, a former Quaker nursing home has become his sanctuary since the Wave Trauma Centre was handed the keys to provide support to victims and survivors of the Troubles. It’s a beautiful morning and Gault beams as he walks slowly down the steps of the ornate grey stone building into quiet gardens.


“This is a place of hope,” he says. “If you’d asked me 30 years ago how I felt, it would have been complete anger. But now there’s just feelings of sadness. People have lost so much, I’ve lost so much. There’s things that are gone that you can’t get back. It makes you wonder what could have been.

“When I came to Wave in 2005, nearly everybody was the same. The red mist had descended as trauma wasn’t really addressed in the 70s and 80s. There was a reluctance among people as well to talk about it; you didn’t want to be stigmatised. You didn’t want people to know, you put defences up and camouflaged things.

“Coming here you found people in similar situations. There was a unity. I met inspirational people. There was nobody judging you, just supporting you.”

Nine people were killed and 130 injured on Bloody Friday

Recently requested medical notes reveal that Gault wasn’t expected to live beyond the age of 37 due to the severity of his injuries and psychological trauma.

Nine people were killed and 130 injured on Bloody Friday, during which the city’s main thoroughfares were targeted by IRA bombs from shortly after lunchtime.

The Provisional IRA issued a “sincere apology” on the 30th anniversary of the atrocity in 2002 and said it had not been their intention to kill “non-combatants”.

Two soldiers, Stephen Cooper and Philip Price, and four Ulsterbus workers — Jackie Gibson, Thomas Killops, William Irvine and William Crothers — were killed at Oxford Street bus station. Brigid Murray, Stephen Parker and Margaret O’Hare, a mother of seven, died in the blast close to shops on the Cavehill Road.

For Gault, his childhood ended that day.

“Just like Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday to me was an assault on the innocents,” he says. “I remember everything that happened on the day; if you ask me what happened the day before or the day after, I couldn’t tell you. It’s as if someone put a thumbprint on your head like a barcode, the memories are so vivid.

“I can tell you what was on the radio that morning; there was a song called Where’s Your Mama Gone. They call it earworm now but I always remember going down the Antrim Road humming it without a care.”

Standing at traffic lights a few hours later as he waited to cross the Limestone Road with his mother, younger sister and cousin, Gault was blown into the air by a bomb planted in the boot of the car.

“My surgeon said the reason I wasn’t killed was because I went with the debris. I was a four-stone child and literally went up with the bomb.

“I ended up landing on the pavement. Everyone talks about the noise but I don’t remember that. There was a thudding feeling. It went dark grey very quickly but one of my most vivid memories is the flash right above my head.

“I’d no idea where I was. I was sitting on the ground and there was a pool of blood. People say you can’t see pain, you feel pain. But you do see pain and I began to scream. A British soldier carried me and put me in the back of a jeep. An army medic came running over and put field dressings around the wound until the ambulance came. That’s what helped save my leg.”

He describes his surgeon, the late John Robb — a leading trauma surgeon during the Troubles and former Irish senator who Michael D Higgins said was a “voice of reconciliation” — as a “miracle worker”.

“I was about to lose my right leg from the knee down. It was 1972 but John Robb managed to re-attach it. It doesn’t do what a limb should, it doesn’t do anything a foot should do. But it does have blood circulation and gives it things like hair growth.”

Multiple operations followed until he was 17 years old during a period in which he had to grow a “thick skin”.

Raised a Catholic in a mixed neighbourhood, he became the target of abuse. “You had to survive and grow up very quickly. You had to realise when people called you “Peg Leg” or “Hop-a-Long”, you couldn’t take it personally.

My wife is very private and knows how difficult it is for me to speak about what happened

“Others called you a Brit sympathiser because they couldn’t understand that you were injured by the IRA as a Catholic. I had callipers on for four years and when I went back to school, some people were telling me I was a casualty of war.

“When I joined the civil service, I had one person say: ‘I’m sorry to hear what happened to you, you weren’t doing anything wrong at the time?’ I felt like saying back: ‘yeah, as a nine-year-old I was an expert bomb maker’. It was the perception that because of your religion that you must have done something wrong. But that’s what you lived through during the ‘80s.”

Gault met his wife, Karen, in 1983 and the couple have three grown-up boys.

“My wife is very private and knows how difficult it is for me to speak about what happened. But what I can say is that without her I couldn’t be who I am.”

A private commemoration will take place in Belfast City Hall to mark the 50th anniversary. Survivors, victims’ families and victims’ groups have been invited to attend.

Gault said he appreciates that people “want to remember and pay their respects” but he would find it too difficult.

“The event itself is marked every day of my life. The memories and scarring are always there.

“I get up in the morning and look at what’s left of my foot, which is that of a nine-year-old boy. It’s always with me. I understand why people need to remember but for me, I need the day to pass as quickly as possible. I’ll go out with my sons, who give me hope. I’ll keep busy.”