The Ballymurphy Families, pictured in September, 2014, outside the Coroners Court in Victoria Street, Belfast for the preliminary hearing into the Ballymurphy Massacre
On May 11, 2021 the Honourable Mrs Justice Keegan presided as Coroner over the inquests into the deaths of ten persons arising from incidents that occurred between August 9 and August 11 at Ballymurphy in West Belfast, almost 50 years earlier in 1971.
These deaths occurred at a relatively early stage of a period of time universally known as ‘The Troubles’.
The immediate backdrop was the introduction of an internment operation carried out by the British Government and initiated originally on the recommendation of the Stormont administration, headed by the sixth and last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Brian Faulkner, on August 9.
The process was code named Operation Demetrius.
Inquests had been conducted in 1972 at which open verdicts were returned. In 2011 the Attorney General directed a fresh inquest into the deaths. These opened in November 2018 and lasted until March 2020.
When Justice Keegan stated that the outcome of the long and tedious deliberations was to declare all ten victims totally innocent of any charge their family relatives and their dedicated legal teams broke into spontaneous applause.
At long last a terrible wrong perpetrated on the victims was corrected.
I started my teaching career in St Aidan’s Christian Brothers’ Primary School on the Whiterock Road in Belfast.
From 1969 onwards owing to increasing civil unrest, sectarian killings and mass destruction of properties, the everyday quality of life for everyone gradually worsened, allowing for very little normal social interaction.
As a consequence Nationalist natives of Northern Ireland, in particular, tended to look increasingly southwards for holidays or long weekends, simply because it was the safer and more enjoyable option.
So it was as a very young teacher, in 1971, some friends and I decided to go to the All-Ireland Senior football semi-final between Galway and Down on August 8 of that year.
None of us had been anywhere during our school vacation so we picked this particular weekend to go to a big game and probably to a dance on the Sunday night before returning back by train to Belfast on the following day and then to our separate homes by bus.
An added personal interest was that three fellow young teaching friends, Colm McAlarney, Ray McConville and my housemate, Donal Davey, were starters on the Down side.
Just before I left home to get on the Belfast/Cookstown bus a mutual friend asked me to visit an old college acquaintance, Fr Felix McGuckin, a young priest who had been sent from Armagh archdiocese, on loan, to the Down and Connor diocesan parish of St John’s which then included the large catchment area of Ballymurphy.
Felix did not know either the geography or the people of the city well as he had spent his third level days studying to be a priest in the relative calm of Maynooth in County Kildare.
As my term accommodation was beside his new Parochial House and as we were both GAA aficionados who attended St Patrick’s College in Armagh, I was really looking forward to meeting him and discussing the merits of his Ballinderry GAA club side who were starting to show signs of a wonderful revival which would eventually bring them many honours at County, Provincial and National levels.
After our bus had completed the 47 mile journey to Belfast City centre. I boarded the Falls Road bus for the three mile journey to my digs at the junction of the Whiterock and Falls Roads. Immediately I knew that there was something seriously wrong as the bus sped onwards.
All the passengers were anxiously whispering loudly and wondering would they get home safely. I seemed to be the only person in the packed bus who did not know the source of their growing fears whether or not the bus would be allowed to continue its journey to the terminus, some five miles away. After speaking to the passenger beside me I was soon able to grasp what had happened.
That morning a father of six was driving his work van past Springfield Road RUC station on the Springfield Road which intersected with the Falls Road about two miles ahead of us. The van driver Henry Thornton, a native of Crossmaglen, had stopped at traffic lights outside the station before legally zig zagging his vehicle through two police barricades.
As he did so the exhaust of his car backfired. Mistakenly thinking that it was gunfire, a member of the British Parachute Regiment shot poor Henry dead. Sadly this incident precipitated a full scale riot which grew in intensity and swelling numbers as the day progressed.
When we reached the next major intersection of the Springfield and Grosvenor Roads the police and army told the bus driver to go no further and for all passengers to disembark. All four major roads at the intersection were now blocked by security forces and an ever-increasing number of bottle throwing, angry rioters.
Sensing our predicament, many of the local residents in the nearby side streets opened their front and back doors to let us through. Many friendly women offered us tea and buns, some of them also asking us ‘were we carrying?’ Afterwards I learned that this was an oblique reference to ‘guns’.
It was about 9 o’clock before I was able to rejoin the Falls Road at a higher point ahead. As I was at the end of the passenger queue most of the other passengers had, by this time, either gone on ahead or had arrived at their homes. As I quickly walked, nervously, towards my digs I instinctively knew that I had made a wrong decision.
As time went on the road became increasingly devoid of traffic and the only sound that I could hear was my own hurried footsteps, willing me to go faster and faster while still trying not to draw attention to myself. My troubled mind imagined all kinds of unspecified and dangerous scenarios about to unfold like gunmen of whatever hue lurking in the shadows or bombs about to explode anywhere.
What would my poor parents and other family members think of me for being so careless and irresponsible to allow my end to come prematurely in an urban setting far away from the tranquillity of my rural home?
All transport for the foreseeable future within and to and from the city would surely be cancelled. The hopes of going to Dublin were but a fanciful dream.
I would go to Mass in the nearby St John’s church the next morning and maybe, I pondered, some kind of normality would have returned to the streets by Monday and I would be able to return to my native home.
Little did I then realise that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were about to ignite literally into a burning inferno of vehicles being hijacked and then set alight in a cauldron of absolute mayhem, hate and fear.
By 10 o’clock it was a tired but relieved young Derry man who walked into his digs in Hugo Street and updated a worried landlady of my day’s experiences.
After attending Mass the next day and having a light lunch I sat down to watch the All-Ireland semi-final on television. The reception was very bad and all I saw or indeed heard was a series of jumbled images and a litany of assorted, crackling noises.
It certainly was not my weekend as Down stumbled to a seven point defeat. My hopes of another Down/Offaly All Ireland final to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their wonderful 1961 encounter was also gone.
Going to bed that night I just hoped and prayed that the following day would be relatively peaceful and that I would be able to return home and do some farming chores for the rest of my holidays. Never did physical, farm work appear as attractive and welcoming as it did at that low point in my life!
At approximately 4.30am the next morning I was awakened from my slumber by a cacophony of dustbin lids banging on the pavements for a radius of two miles. Unknown to me at that time, that was the prearranged sound across northern nationalist areas if internment without trial was being introduced.
Then, my adopted parish of St John’s encompassed the greater Ballymurphy area along with the nearby estate of Sprinhgill.
These along with Turf Lodge were the main catchment areas for the school in which I taught. St Aidan’s Christian Brothers’ Primary School was at the top of the Whiterock Road which was a link road between the Falls and Springfield Roads. For the next forty eight hours these whole areas were completely saturated with members of the British Parachute regiment.
Incensed by what had happened at the police station on the previous Saturday and by the imposition of internment without trial on Monday morning, August 9 many young men took to the streets throwing stones at the army personnel.
Looters were also out in force as delivery vehicles carrying all kinds of goods and meat provisions were hijacked and the contents either stolen or thrown away.
Many could not control their frustrations at their homes being invaded and their friends taken away. Thus some acted in a rather unseemly fashion and as usual the vast majority of innocent peace abiding people had their images and reputation damaged by the drastic, impulsive actions of an unruly minority.
However, one should never forget that the core of the problem was the one sidedness of the application of internment and the absolute heavy handedness of the British army.
For example of the 342 arrested all but two were Catholics and at least 100 of them had no links to the IRA. This was proven when the latter number were released within a matter of days.
That morning many men had their front doors kicked open before being roughly dragged, half-dressed from their homes. With their tanks, their guns, their checkpoints, their raids, the British Army made sure nobody was left untouched by their cruelty and invasion of privacy.
Many residents were just flung into army saracens and brought to interrogation centres before being brought to more permanent holding centres such as Long Kesh near Lisburn, Magilligan Army base in County Derry or the Maidstone ship in Belfast Lough.
A pall of desperate gloom filled the Ballymurhy air as members of the parachute regiment shot dead ten innocent civilians during these two days, August 9 and August 10, of relentless torture.
Among the dead were many close relatives of our pupils whom all our teaching staff would have known so well. When we heard that one of our local priests, Fr Hugh Mullan, was shot dead the anger of all the residents increased one hundred fold. He was always such a quiet, pastoral priest who always cared for his flock.
An eleventh person, shortly afterwards, died from a heart attack as a result of the terror inflicted upon the people.
With Belfast transport wise, to all intents and purposes, cut off from the outside world, I was literally marooned there until the following Wednesday when a friend drove me out of West Belfast. I will never forget the haunted and forlorn look of ordinary people who were desperately trying to cope with the sheer awfulness of what had been unfairly thrust upon them.
Just before I left my digs I realised that I must honour my promise to an old friend that I would visit Fr Felix McGuckin who only a few weeks previously had taken up residence in the parochial house at St John’s. As a rural priest he had no knowledge of the vicissitudes and peculiar habits of either the British military or indeed any paramilitaries.
When he opened the door to me I knew instantly there was something seriously wrong. Gone was the normal and happy demeanour of a long standing, friendly acquaintance. His hollowed cheeks, melancholy voice and trembling hands were obviously the outward manifestation of a terrible inner turmoil and troubled mind.
I waited quietly, saying not a word, except nodding my head in acknowledgment of his obvious grief. In muted tones he eventually told me what had happened on the night of internment and the subsequent killings by the British Army.
“I should be dead instead of Fr Hugh. I got a message from a resident to tell me that a man was shot and seriously injured. Just after I left the Parochial house, I realised that I had forgotten my stole in order to administer the Sacrament of the Dying. When I returned to the house to get it I met Fr Hugh who said.
“I have my stole with me in my pocket. I will go and administer the Last Rites. Anyway it is easier for me as I know the terrain better as I have been here a lot longer.”
Like a flash he was gone. It was no time until the word came back that Fr Hugh was shot dead and would some priest come and give the Last Rites to him. I will never forget that moment. He had been waving a white cloth to signify that he was a man of peace, a priest doing his duty.”
Fr Felix and I shared a cup of tea and a few biscuits as he and I tried to come to terms with what he had just told me.
In his sheer loneliness he told me that he really knew no one apart from the parish clergy whom he had just joined. However, despite my protestations to the contrary, he kept blaming himself for what had sadly happened to his brother priest.
Eventually I left, telling him that I would call often to see him when I would return to school three weeks later at the start of September.
I then went home to Lissan and thanked God for being able and alive to spray our potato crop with bluestone, clean the cow byre, harvest our grass seed and corn crops before another working school year would begin.
I am now delighted after almost fifty years of trying various legal and political procedures, at both national and international levels, the families of the Ballymurphy 1971 Massacre Victims have seen their close relatives, who were shot dead, officially declared innocent.
It has been a long, arduous meandering, journey punctuated by various stubborn obstacles and unyielding resistance by several British governments.
However, the families have been resilient beyond the ordinary limitations of that word. They never gave up hope that one day their loved ones, who were shot down needlessly in cold blood, would one day be pronounced totally innocent.
In 2013 I published a memoir called the ‘Dove of Peace’. It was launched in Longford County Library by then MD of the Longford Leader and now TD, Joe Flaherty.
In that book I wrote a prose poem on my views and memories of ‘Ballymurphy’.
I am very happy that my hopeful sentiments expressed in the last verse have now come to pass.
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