Thousands ‘silently enduring anxiety and stress’ because of Troubles

The son of a victim of sectarian violence needed help to recover from the trauma

In June 1976 26-year-old Paul McNally, a Catholic, walked out of the bookies at the Ardoyne shops in north Belfast. He was with a friend. As they were crossing the road at the interface area what were described as two "youths" started firing at them.

McNally’s friend was wounded and survived but McNally, a plumber, was fatally injured and died two days later in hospital. It was yet another sectarian attack.

The Ulster Defence Association almost certainly was responsible. Nobody was convicted at the time although in more recent years the now defunct Historical Enquiries Team also investigated the murder, again unsuccessfully.

McNally’s son Damien was just four months old at the time. Through his young, teenage and early adult years, he lived with levels of stress and anxiety that gnawed away at him but he was able to just about cope and survive. He talks about the constant “void” in his life, of living through “good days and bad days”, of missing a father he could not remember.

When he was 26, he decided to walk into the WAVE offices in Belfast and seek help.

It was the realisation that he was then older than his father when he was murdered that finally propelled him into getting assistance. WAVE is an organisation that offers care and support to anyone bereaved, injured or traumatised as a result of the Troubles.

Damien McNally says many people do not understand that there are thousands of people in Northern Ireland silently enduring high levels of trauma, anxiety and stress because of the violence.

“I think you need reconciliation between those who were affected and those who weren’t,” he says. “It’s not you that is crazy; it is the situation you are living in that is crazy. It’s unfair to say you have mental health issues. It was the conditions in which people had to live that was wrong.”

Suffer

Seeking help was one of the best things he did, he is sure. “I just wanted to go and speak to people who had experienced something similar. That was my main reason for going there.”

McNally had not long met his future wife Oonagh and he knew that if he did not address his demons, their relationship could suffer. “This thing is not going away, I thought. I did not want it becoming a bigger issue for me or anyone else, particularly my wife.”

One of the WAVE counsellors who helped him was Paul Crawford, who coincidentally recently posted an article on the Eamonn Mallie website about the trauma he suffered after the UVF murdered his businessman father John in 1974.

McNally says he “never had any want or desire for any kind of revenge because ultimately you just end up causing the same pain for somebody else – we never, ever would want that to happen”.

A word he frequently uses is “acknowledgment” of what he and his sister Karen and mother Hazel suffered. There was never any doubt that his father’s murder was both indiscriminate and sectarian, but he needed to hear that officially. That happened when the Historical Enquiries Team reinvestigated the murder and was able to unequivocally provide that confirmation.

“The main issue was acknowledgment for my mum, to say publicly that my dad was not involved in anything, that he was just an ordinary person going about his business who was killed randomly.”

And it was for his father too. “The dead can’t speak for themselves. It is acknowledging them as individuals. Most of the time they were ordinary people trying to make a living, trying to raise their families.”

Therapeutic

McNally says that sitting for Colin Davidson’s portrait of him as part of his powerful Silent Testimony series of paintings of people who suffered loss in the Troubles also was therapeutic.

“He takes time to sit down and talk to you and it is very, very relaxed. It was very useful that way. He was doing it for the right reasons, he has a lot of integrity. That also was part of the wider acknowledgment.”

McNally has two children, Cormac (11) and Aoife (6). He regrets that his father – who would be 67 now – never met his grandchildren and they him. “It is just very sad my children will never know him. It is such a waste.”

Professionally, he has a fulfilled life. He works for the Community Relations Council in Belfast and currently is writing up a module for University College Cork for a course on trauma that it is running.

“I am generally fine,” says McNally. “I am generally content but I am frustrated that there is a lack of political progress on the whole issues of victims. And nobody seems to know how to deal with it. There is no collective will to acknowledge on a human level what people here went through.”