Remembering Omagh: ‘There were stories we couldn’t write because they were too horrific’

Most recall where they were when they heard about bomb that exploded 23 years ago

Early one summer I got my first “proper” job as a cub reporter in a local newspaper.

The Tyrone Constitution in Omagh was a small operation. The reporters were three welcoming women, with me learning the ropes, sharing a room with the one-man sports department, who provided the crack. Opposite him was the deputy editor, who had printed out and stuck up beside his desk a quote that still pleases me greatly: “Reporters ask you questions; they write down what you say.”

I’ve forgotten who that line was attributed to, but I suppose it could be any caustic character who endured the process of being interviewed by a journalist, from Mark Twain to Bob Dylan.

Looking back, the message was clear: no notions here. We didn’t even get our names on the stories, or bylines as we call them in the trade.


The meticulous editor had his own small office. We printed out our stories and dropped them into his inbox. He applied old-fashioned subbing/proof-reading marks and the sheets were handed back to us, and then we corrected our own mistakes.

It seems laborious now but it had the advantage of stopping rookie reporters making the same errors over and over. Nowadays, I suppose editors just roll their eyes as they digitally correct the same minor slips again and again from repeat offenders. I’d never be like that . . .

We printed the corrected stories and brought them “out the back”, to where the paper was mysteriously “made up”.

I got to cover everything from council meetings to agricultural shows, and our weekly paper showcased the minor triumphs and random tragedies of the county’s people; the bread and butter of local news.

Most people remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the bomb that exploded in Omagh 23 years ago this weekend, killing 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins. What were those victims doing in Omagh at 3.10pm on a Saturday in mid-August 1998?

Two teenage friends were volunteering in the Oxfam shop, while three women who had worked together in Watterson’s drapers for years were also killed.

With the return to school just around the corner, two mothers had been shopping for uniforms, and other folk were doing their weekly grocery shop or picking up bits and pieces. One young man was on the hunt for jeans and boots.

There were young people waiting for exam results, on the brink of a new life, shopping with a granny or a great-aunt. There were visitors from Spain and Co Donegal; one 12-year-old boy whose mother “never realised how green his eyes were” until she had to identify his body.

They included a grandmother, mother and daughter from one family, and a father and son from another.

Our little office was transformed, propelled to the centre of an international story, now covering the biggest single atrocity in the history of the North's Troubles. It was hard for our small staff to cover all the funerals, often taking place at the same time in churches of different denominations. Bombs don't distinguish between creeds.

Destroyed bodies

There were stories we couldn’t write because they were too horrific. Stories about what can happen to human beings when a 500lb device detonates in the place they’ve been ushered to because confusing warnings telephoned to UTV and a Samaritans office in another county, just 35-40 minutes before the explosion, had referenced the courthouse at the other end of the town.

People were lifting parts of loved ones’ destroyed bodies from the street and cradling what was left of them on their laps in whatever vehicle they could scramble into on the way to the local hospital, torn between wanting them to survive and longing for their suffering to end.

As one traumatised man later told the inquest: “I got my mother gathered up and got her into a car.”

Some bereaved families did not receive any remains to grieve over.

We fielded calls from foreign reporters asking how the Real IRA bombers believed their actions would bring about a united Ireland.

You tell me, I remember thinking. The journalistic basics of who, what, where and when we could do; the why remains unfathomable.

We told the survivors’ stories too, for the town was full of walking wounded, including a 23-year-old bride-to-be fitted with a plastic mask after suffering severe burns to two-thirds of her body.

In the way of things in Northern Ireland, then and now, ours was the Protestant/unionist paper while up the road and around the corner, near the courthouse, were our friends at the Catholic/nationalist Ulster Herald. The Impartial Reporter over in Fermanagh helped us out. They know how to name their newspapers up there.

Reporters from both Omagh papers went together to the homes of those who had lost limbs, trying to make the interview ordeal a little easier, just asking them questions, writing down what they said.

But I was sent on my own to interview a 15-year-old girl, a talented pianist, who’d been blinded. I was out of my depth, floundering desperately, just in awe of the quiet strength of this gentle teenager who would go on to earn a degree in music and set up her own academy.

The tears are tripping me as I recall all of this now, but I don’t remember crying much at the time.

I wasn’t dispassionate about it. My mother was from Omagh, or just outside it, and while we didn’t think it was as cool as Derry, of course, our family car had pointed in the direction of that slightly sleepy place perhaps every second weekend of our childhood.


Maybe back then I was too young and inexperienced to absorb the enormity of the massacre that had happened in that wee place.

Bomb scares were nothing unusual in the Northern Ireland I grew up in, and for years we probably lived with the subconscious sense that the next atrocity was just around the corner.

But Omagh was such an unlikely target. A small town with, it seemed to me anyway, a “live and let live” attitude, populated by introverted people who had until then largely escaped the worst of the Troubles.

And anyway, those Troubles were supposed to be over. Less than three months earlier, in May 1998, people north and south of the Border had voted in favour of the Belfast Agreement.

Of course, the tap of violence was not suddenly turned off and that overwhelming vote could not flick a switch that would turn evil people good.

All sorts of eminent folk turned up in Omagh in the aftermath of the bombing to show solidarity, the sort a local journalist wouldn’t expect to encounter under normal circumstances, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Tony and Cherie Blair.

Heather Mills, the amputee who would go on to marry Paul McCartney, spent time with three young women who had each lost a part of their legs.

Some British TV and Irish boyband stars came too. And yes, even in the midst of such darkness, some locals were able to joke about the people of Omagh having already suffered enough.

The Omagh bombing doesn’t trouble the headlines too much these days, although there have been a flurry of mentions this summer.

Just last month a judge in Belfast, delivering judgment in a legal challenge against the British government’s refusal to hold a public inquiry, found there was a “real prospect” the atrocity could have been prevented and recommended the UK and Irish governments carry out investigations.

Separately, it was reported that Liam Campbell, one of a number of men found civilly liable for the bombing, is to be extradited to Lithuania, where he is suspected of international weapons smuggling.

No one has ever been convicted of the Omagh atrocity in a criminal court. The former Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt, also found civilly liable, died in January.

And tributes were paid to the North’s former senior coroner, John Leckey, who presided over the Omagh inquests, after he died last week.

Local newspapers have an intimate relationship with their readers. In our little office in August 1998, there was much agonising over which front-page headline to hoist once photographs of the victims – or as many as could be located just three days after the bomb – had been placed on the front page.

A sense of responsibility to give locals some glimmer of hope meant finally settling on “Net Closing On Killers”. But it wasn’t.

Will it ever?

Mary Minihan is an assistant news editor with The Irish Times