AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY

 

"In the darkness you are my clair de lune,

In the noise you are my peace and calm, In troubled times you are my greatest comfort,

When I hold you all seems right with the world

And I will love you forever no matter what."

Julie Statham was 20 when she wrote those words for her boyfriend, Diarmuid Shields, in January 1993. They had been going out for four years. He too was 20. They planned to get engaged on March 6th that year, his 21st birthday. But neither lived that long.

On January 3rd, Diarmuid and his father were the first victims of the Northern conflict that year. A UVF gang called to their two storey house cum grocery shop at the crossroads in Lisnagleer, near Dungannon, Co Tyrone. The Shields were not a political family, but had a deep interest in Irish music and gaelic football.

It's believed the UVF gang intended killing the entire but failed when Mrs Brid Shields barricaded herself along with a daughter and son, into a downstairs room. Diarmuid and his father could not get away in time. Both were, shot dead. A brother, Davog, was seriously injured.

Anonymous tribute

Julie was distraught but no one realised just how much. An only child and, a student at Queens university, she wrote the above lines in an anonymous tribute to Diarmuid which was printed in the Tyrone Courier, it also explained how Dairmuid had won a place at Anglia Polytechnic, in England, in 1989, but returned to see Julie in Belfast in February 1990, announcing he was home for good.

"The love he had for Ireland," she wrote, "his family and most of all his Julie were too much to bear away from home and the girl he loved so much. As he said himself I'd have walked, if it wasn't so dark.

He got a job locally, and brought her to Paris for her 20th birthday. As a friend said, they were "totally mad about each other, as in that film Frankie and Johnny".

In the weeks following Diarmuid's death Julie's life began to come apart. She spoke to a lecturer at Queens about her anger and depression. "Her concentration was completely destroyed," he recalled, "she couldn't work." She visited Diarmuid's grave every day, sometimes spending hours there, playing tapes of albums and songs they had both loved.

On Monday February 1st, she attended Queen's, where she, signed on for a seminar on "Irish rural society in the 20th century". That evening she went to the Shields home for a special month's mind Mass for Diarmuid and his father.

The following morning, when her father called her, she did not respond. "On Candlemas Day the light went out in their lives," the priest said of her parents at the funeral.

He also spoke of the plans Diarmuid and Julie had and how "on January 3rd someone saw fit to shatter those dreams, to break up the jigsaw of Julie's life. In an frustration and in her questioning of God, she tried to make sense of her jigsaw. She couldn't".

I was sent to cover that funeral. As this job sometimes demands, I found myself having to do things which were repellant. Like calling to the Statham home, in case either parent might wish to speak. Her mother was immersed in her pain and being comforted by a sister, neighbours, friends.

Elemental violation

She was too upset to talk, despite encouragement by a relative who felt it might help if people knew what pain was being suffered in the North. I was advised to talk to Julie's father. He was upstairs in her room, where she was laid out. I just left.

Earlier, accompanied by a photographer who knew the way, I visited the Shields home. It was while a series of bolts were being drawn back, one by one, that I felt this too was going too far. But it was too late.

Mrs Shields is a small woman, polite and gentle. The realisation that such as she had had to endure the horror she did, seemed such an elemental violation. I regretted immediately having troubled her. She was kind and said little, but it hardly mattered. I could hardly bring myself to ask her anything.

The photographer was as moved. He is Protestant and based in Belfast. He told me about a Catholic girl he had been going out with, and she had ended the relationship on discovering he was Protestant.

The implacability of the North was making itself felt. And its mourning. "There is an ocean of grief," Father Denis Faul said later, "and a big lake" of pain and injury which touches everyone here." In the Dungannon area alone over 20 young people had been killed in: the previous 2 1/2 years, including a 28 year old man on the eve of Julie Statham's funeral Mass.

Who might be next?

At that Mass a friend of her's read The Lord is my Shepherd, with the congregation responding "though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil". It had a poignancy as of a community doomed. So much so that as they sang and prayed for Julie there was a realisation that they were singing and praying for themselves too. For who among them might not be next.

As Julie's coffin was carried down the aisle they sang that beautiful Protestant hymn,

Abide with Me. It filled the church with its resonance and its significance for all the living and the dead of Northern Ireland. As we walked to the graveyard an esteemed colleague, there in a personal capacity, wept for both communities and at their abandonment" by Britain and ourselves in the South.

Standing by the graveside, Julie's father stared at her coffin, his eyes glazed over in disbelief the look of Northern Ireland for nearly 25 years.

While the priest sprinkled clay on her coffin, intoning those comfortless words of dust and ashes, Julie's mother howled a cry of anguish which touched all hearers to the very marrow the all too familiar sound of Northern Ireland. And soon the grave was covered in a mound of flowers and wreaths, with their tender messages of love and loss for decades the very image of Northern Ireland,

Who can contemplate returning to that?