In Enniskillen, the 30-year-long healing process continues
On November 8th, 1987, the peace of a quiet Sunday in Co Fermanagh was shattered
Nestled between Co Fermanagh’s upper and lower Lough Erne, Enniskillen is a rich mixture of the legacy left by Planter and Gael, one that saw a 16th-century power switch from the Maguire chieftains to the English aristocracy.
By the 20th century, the lakeside people had learned, for the most part, to live agreeably with their differences just across the northern side of the Border.
Enniskillen enjoyed much better community relations than most Northern towns as the Troubles unfolded from the 1970s. However, this fact made the IRA’s bombing of a Remembrance Sunday commemoration on November 8th, 1987 all the more shocking.
When approaching the town from Co Sligo, the town’s major landmark is Enniskillen Castle, built by Hugh Maguire the Hospitable. Ideally placed to repel invaders, the waterside castle became a fortress for Irish rebellion against English rule in the 16th century.
In Forthill Park, meanwhile, a rising pillar bearing a monument to General Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, of the 27th Inniskillings Regiment, overlooks the town. His namesake Sir William Cole is credited with being the 17th-century founder of Enniskillen.
The town’s intermingled tapestry is everywhere. Approaching from the east all through July, the lamp-posts in and around the Protestant Derrychara estate are peppered with Union and Ulster flags.
Drive another half mile across town and out the Kilmacormick Road heading north, however, and the cultural landscape changes. This time it is the Irish Tricolour that flutters from lamp-posts. Each emblem marks territory.
But if Enniskillen has an identity crisis, it is one with which it has coped well – better, perhaps, than many believed on that Sunday morning three decades ago after an explosion left 12 civilians, all Protestant, dead.
The bombing left deep and lasting scars. Not just on the town’s streetscape, but also on the bodies of many left stricken by the blast
The bombing left deep and lasting scars. Not just on the town’s streetscape, or the hearts and minds of local people, Catholic and Protestant, but also on the bodies of many left stricken by the blast.
The reactions in the days and years after the bombing were built on the foundations of the years before. Enniskillen had not been immune from the Provisional IRA campaign. The local Inland Revenue office was bombed. Two local RUC reserves were killed by a booby-trapped explosive.
In 1973, a 22-year-old RUC man David Purvis was gunned down in a hail of 25 bullets from two Thompson submachine guns from a passing car in the narrow Belmore Street, a short distance from Enniskillen’s War Memorial.
Nevertheless, the IRA’s attacks in Enniskillen were sporadic and blamed on a local commander and some impressionable young volunteers. Most of the IRA campaign was in rural areas, along Fermanagh’s sparsely-populated Border with Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal.
The memorial itself, built in Belmore Street after the first World War, had the striking figure of a bronze statue of a British soldier, head bowed, on a plinth. Engraved below are the names of local men who died at war in foreign fields; Protestant family names such as Johnston and Thompson intermingled with Catholic surnames McCaffrey, Maguire and McManus.
A row of streets in the centre of the town, almost exclusively populated by Catholics until the 1970s, was known as the Dardanelles, such were the number of telegrams that arrived after the abortive Turkish operation in 1915.
Despite the two traditions, and indeed Irishmen from North and South, serving in the ranks of the two regiments raised by the town over the centuries, the annual Remembrance ceremony in November was mainly the preserve of Protestants.
Nationalist councillors didn’t attend, and when they held a majority they passed the “mayoral” role to a Unionist deputy. As fate would have it, Sinn Féin held a majority at the time of the bombing in 1987.
The party had won a Westminster parliamentary seat in the 1950s, but hadn’t contested elections for nearly 30 years. Six years before the bombing, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands became MP for the area, a result that prompted his party to enter electoral politics, and led to the birth of modern-day Sinn Féin.
Few believed that the Remembrance Sunday commemoration could ever be attacked. Inevitably, it had military trappings, marching soldiers and a brass band, but it saw hundreds of civilians, including schoolchildren, gather round the memorial, too.
November 8th, 1987 should have been no different. Some spectators huddled on a pavement, protected from the rain by an old dilapidated Catholic Church building called the Reading Rooms. An IRA bomb planted inside exploded, bringing a gable wall crashing down upon them.
Enniskillen buried its dead, with dignity – though there were moments that were filled with ‘the unmentionable odour of death’
Confusion reigned. Rescuers pulled at the rubble with their bare hands to free the trapped. By the end of the day 11 people had died and 63 more were injured, some grievously.
In the days after, Enniskillen buried its dead, with dignity – though there were moments that were filled with “the unmentionable odour of death”, a phrase used by poet WH Auden’s as he described horrors in the second World War.
One service was held in the Presbyterian Church in East Bridge Street, barely 100 yards from where the victims died. The church was filled to capacity, with the service relayed by loudspeaker to those outside.
For a couple of moments, though, the speakers had to fall silent, as another funeral procession approached from the Methodist church at the far end of town. Mourners from both looked at each other in reverent silence.
Later, Gordon Wilson spoke to journalists, telling of being trapped under the rubble with his daughter, Marie. The 20-year-old nurse was the youngest to die in the bombing.
Recalling her last words, “Daddy, I love you very much”, Wilson’s words of forgiveness struck a chord, and the message from the Protestant victims was that they did not blame their Catholic neighbours.
Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich came to say a special Mass in St Michael’s Catholic Church that week. Wilson attended, and the 1,000-strong congregation stood to applaud him.
In the years that followed, Wilson’s words were credited with helping to maintain calm as Enniskillen became a byword for a dignified response of a community that held together in the face of evil.
The widespread revulsion impressed on Republicans that this was an act too far, an own goal in their ongoing campaign
Out of a sense of foreboding came a sense of hope. Private discussions were by then, as it emerged later, already being held about moving towards a political solution to the conflict. Nevertheless, Enniskillen was a significant turning-point.
The widespread revulsion impressed on Republicans that this was an act too far, an own goal in their ongoing campaign. The impact seemed particularly strong in the Republic, where many were left shocked.
The mayor of Dublin, Carmencita Hederman, travelled north to deliver books of condolence containing 45,000 signatures. During a visit to the Erne hospital, she cried as she spoke to bereaved relatives.
Wilson’s forgiveness was not universal, it has to be said. Loyalist politicians questioned the failure to search the Catholic church building where the blast occurred. Later, some admitted that they realised that the focus on Wilson had given them the privacy necessary for grief. However, as time went on, some became frustrated that nobody was ever charged in connection with the bombing, despite British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s pledges.
In the months and years afterwards, Enniskillen was a strange cocktail of emotions: forgiveness, anger, bitterness, resentment at a lack of justice, but overwhelmingly an empathy between the two communities that this would not create a division. Relationships remained unbroken.
The authorities decided to place a new plaque on the memorial bearing the victims’ names. Bronze doves were commissioned and placed on the structure, but this displeased some who believed a war memorial should not be changed in this way.
Locals from both traditions joined in candlelight peace vigils. More importantly, they joined together to create a school where children could be educated together. One of them was an Enniskillen man John Maxwell, whose teenage son Paul was killed at Mullaghmore, Co Sligo when the IRA bombed Lord Mountbatten’s boat in 1979.
The community moved on. For the injured and the bereaved, the journey since has been so much harder, filled with pain and loss
Two years later, the school opened. Today it thrives. When US president Barack Obama came to Enniskillen, he visited the school and urged the pupils to “dream big dreams”.
In 2012, Queen Elizabeth visited the town. Following a meeting with the bereaved, she made the short, but significant and symbolic walk from the Church of Ireland Cathedral across to St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church.
It was the first time ever that she had entered a Roman Catholic place of worship during her 60-year reign. Somehow, it was fitting that she had chosen to do so in the Fermanagh town.
Thirty years have now passed since the bombing. The community at large moved on, raised families and built their lives. For the injured and the bereaved, the journey since has been so much harder, filled with pain and loss.
Local headmaster Ronnie Hill was seriously injured in the blast. He lay in a coma for almost 13 years, lovingly cared for by his wife, Noreen, before he died.
Asked if she ever felt bitter, Noreen would say: “The Lord would not allow me to become bitter.”
Some still suffer physical pain, others endure psychologically. Many have passed on, leaving the next generation of families to remember their relatives who died on one of Northern Ireland’s darkest days.
The chairman of the local council is again a Sinn Féin member, Stephen McCann. Aged just five when the atrocity happened, he sparked controversy earlier this year when he refused to condemn the bombing.
Plans to mark the 30th anniversary have not been without hitches. A new memorial for the victims, proposed by a local group, was not universally welcomed. Some expressed reservations about the prominent location for the memorial, but a compromise was reached, which will see the memorial in place for the anniversary with agreement on a permanent home to be decided later on.
The spirit of compromise lives on in Enniskillen.
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