Remembering a surprise trip home marred by tragedy in Omagh

20 years ago I took my baby home to Northern Ireland for the first time

Yvonne Watterson with her baby daughter Sophie in 1998.

Yvonne Watterson with her baby daughter Sophie in 1998.

 

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Omagh bombing, I am drawn back to the summer of 1998. A new mother living in the US, I had taken my baby daughter back home to Northern Ireland, my lovely, tragic Northern Ireland. Between my father, my brother, and a handful of relatives who could keep a secret (an impressive trait in rural Co Derry) we had planned a “This is Your Life” style surprise for my mother’s 60th birthday. It was delicious, knowing we had all swallowed the same secret, and that my all-knowing mother was completely in the dark.

The Troubles had tainted previous visits home, but this time would be different - there would be no bombings, no shootings, no army checkpoints. There was something symbolic, magical even, in returning home with a new baby girl in my arms to a new optimism fuelled by The Good Friday Agreement.

It had been different four years before. That trip had coincided with Ireland’s qualifying for the World Cup. The country was ecstatic, with factories, offices, shops, even banks, all closing early so everyone could make it home, or to the pub, in time for kick-off at the Ireland v Italy match being televised live from Giants Stadium in New Jersey. We had considered going to the pub to watch the first-round match, but my father convinced us to stay home, have a few drinks, and watch from the comfort of the living room. So we stayed in and watched - in joyous disbelief - as Ireland went up 1-0 against Italy at Giants Stadium. When the lads in green scored a goal, we roared with pride even as we were afraid to look, not unlike Boston Red Sox fans prior to the 2004 World Series.

The second half of the match was well underway when two men, their faces hidden behind balaclavas, stormed into a tiny packed pub, The Heights Bar, in the village of Loughinisland, Co Down. With an AK47 and a Czech made rifle, they shot madly and indiscriminately at the 16 men gathered around the bar watching Ireland beat Italy. They killed six of them. According to witnesses, the two gunmen laughed as they made their getaway. The first killed, Barney Green, was in his 80s, someone’s grandfather, and as I recall from the stories that later poured from that heartbroken village, he had put on his best suit to mark Ireland’s making it to the World Cup.

It chills me still to think of Barney Green struck down with such savagery in the very moment as that jubilant Irish squad burst out of an American football stadium, awash in green, buoyed by the chanting of 60,000 supporters, anticipating champagne and a night of revelry, only to be silenced and sickened by the hideous dispatch from a country pub back home. Surely that would be the last time we would hear of such horror. No. It would not.

Country in conflict

For many Northern Ireland families, mine included, the youngest generation knew only a country in conflict. But in 1998, my daughter would witness a new country, a country at peace. The people had voted for it in anticipation of the brand new day Northern Ireland deserved.

When my mother’s 60th birthday arrived that year, I telephoned in the morning with love and good wishes and a promise that we would arrange a trip home soon. Yes, she had received the flowers I’d sent, and she was looking forward to going out for dinner with daddy that evening. On their way to a favourite restaurant, he took a detour for a quick visit with my Aunt Sadie, where delighted shrieks of “Surprise!”exploded from the well-hidden gathering of family and friends whose cars were parked on another lane, far out of sight. One of my cousins even assumed the role of This is Your Life host, Eamonn Andrews, complete with a big red book, and she related the story of my mother’s life to all assembled.

When she reached the part about my mother becoming a grandmother for the first time just eight months earlier, she suggested calling me so I could at least be part of the celebration by phone. Naturally, I was unavailable, given that two days earlier, I had flown in to Belfast with Sophie, and had been holed up at my Aunt Sadie’s house enjoying secret visits with my dad and my brother, the three of us delighting in the fact that my mother was oblivious to all the subterfuge.

Naturally, she was disappointed that I wasn’t home when she phoned, but she was quickly distracted by the doorbell ringing. Thinking it was yet another cousin or a friend with a birthday present, she opened the door. There, looking up at her from a nest of pink blankets, was her beautiful baby granddaughter. It was a perfectly executed surprise, planned down to the very last minute, and one my mother would cherish always, as a jewel in a box.

At the same time, unbeknownst to us and to most ordinary people in Northern Ireland, another plan was coming to fruition. A diabolical scheme, it would just a week later, rip asunder the tiny market town of Omagh in the neighbouring county of Tyrone, devastating families from as near as Donegal and as far away as Madrid, Spain, and reminding us all that Northern Ireland’s Troubles were far from over.

I don’t know all the details. I’m afraid of them.

It frightens me to consider the machinations of minds that could craft a plan to load a nondescript red car, plate number MDZ 5211, with 500 pounds of explosives, park it in the middle of a busy shopping area, and place two phone calls to the local television station, one to the Coleraine Samaritans, with a warning 40 minutes before the bomb inside it exploded. There was confusion as the police evacuated the shoppers - mostly mothers and children on back-to-school shopping sprees. Thinking they were moving them away from the Court House to safety, the police moved people to the bottom of Market Street, where the bomb was about to be detonated.

I wonder if they felt that familiar relief, the kind you know from past experiences of bomb-scares and hoaxes, if they felt they were out of harm’s way and just in time, believing that it would all be alright. Maybe they told themselves it was just a bomb scare, like old times, not to be taken very seriously but still they would cooperate with the authorities so they could get back to their Saturday afternoon shopping, seeking out bargains for backpacks and books, new uniforms and lunch-boxes, full of the promise that accompanies the start of a new school year.

I cannot write about it without weeping.

War zone

Spaniard Gonzalo Cavedo and child posing by the car carrying the bomb that killed 29 people, many of whom are in the picture, including the photographer. Mr. Cavedo and the child survived. (Source: Belfast Telegraph)

Mere seconds after a photo of Spaniard Gonzalo Cavedo posing with a child on his shoulders beside a red car was taken with a camera later retrieved from the rubble, the 500 pound bomb inside the red car exploded, blowing the vehicle to bits. Like a butcher’s knife, the blast cut through the row of little shops. I recall the harrowing accounts of witnesses, forever altered, who saw blood flowing in the gutters and pieces of people in the street, describing the savagery, the carnage before them as a war zone, a killing field.

At the same time, my brother, his girlfriend, and my baby girl and I were driving around the North Antrim coast, listening to Neil Young and Paul Brady CDs, occasionally breaking into song as we took in wild scenery around us. We stopped to show Sophie the horses and cows that peered over gates along the country roads. It was a beautiful, windy Irish day, and we were happy.

We were not listening to the radio that afternoon, so we didn’t hear the news. We had no reason to believe anything was wrong, until, heading home at dusk, we were stopped at a police checkpoint, where we were told to take a detour. And we knew. It had happened again. My parents knew too. Worse, they were worried sick. Something horrific had happened, and they had no idea where we were. Worried, they paced the floor until their driveway was lit up again with the headlights of my brother’s car.

There was no peace.

Another atrocity. Another anniversary for the people of Northern Ireland that would leave us wondering how we would ever recover from the maddening, wrenching anguish that visited us once again. My country is so tiny - I’ve been told it fits into one third of the state of Kansas - that I imagine everyone knew someone who knew someone maimed or killed in the largest mass murder in its history. A relative of an Antrim barman had been killed in the Omagh bombing, and I remember wondering what I could possibly say to him by way of condolence, knowing there are no adequate words.

I felt sad and foolish. I felt cheated, having dared to believe that peace had come to the country I had left but still loved. I should have remembered what we must never forget from The Isle of Innisfree - that “peace comes dropping slow.”

Nothing had changed, and everything changed at 3.10PM when the bomb exploded, injuring over 300 and killing 29 people and unborn twins. And there would be no justice. Twenty years later, no one has been convicted.

The Omagh list of dead “reads like a microcosm of Troubles deaths, and left no section of Irish life untouched. The town they attacked is roughly 60:40 Catholic:Protestant, and the dead consisted of Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon and two Spanish visitors. They killed young, old and middle-aged, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grannies. They killed republicans and unionists, including a prominent local member of the Ulster Unionist Party. They killed people from the backbone of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). They killed unborn twins, bright students, cheery shop assistants and many young people. They killed three children from the Irish Republic who were up north on a day trip. Everyone they killed was a civilian. The toll of death was thus both extraordinarily high and extraordinarily comprehensive.”

May we never forget them.

Originally from Co Antrim, Yvonne Watterson emigrated to the United States in 1988 and settled in Arizona where she works in education. She is director of education innovation at the Arizona Charter Schools Association. She has been recognised for her work in school reform and her activism on immigration. She blogs at Considering the Lilies . . . and Lessons from the Field where a version of this article originally appeared.

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