Cathy Gallagher, whose brother Aiden died in the Real IRA attack, has rarely spoken publicly about her loss. But on the eve of the 10th anniversary, the 30-year-old gives her own account of the heartache and anger that has dominated her life since the bombing
God handed me a pair of glasses that changed my view of the world forever. Until that day, I guess I lived with a false sense of security. How I wish I still did. At 20 years old, my carefree life was about to come to an abrupt end. Little was I to know, not only was I about to lose a brother, but in turn I would lose my whole family in some form or another.
On that morning, I spoke with Aiden. He was in his bed sleeping off the night before, with jeans and shirt still on, I knew it must have been a good night.
I stood at the foot of his bed brushing my teeth noisily, trying to wake him. He grunted and settled down for his second sleep, so with my cue to leave I headed into town. I never imagined that this would be the last time I’d ever see Aiden. I relive that moment in my head. Trying to preserve every last piece. It’s all I have left now.
I was in our family kitchen when the bomb exploded. The glass in the windows shook and I felt for sure that every window in the house had broken.
Mum rushed into the room in a panic. She told me it was a bomb. I ran up the stairs to my bedroom and watched as a black puff of smoke encircled the town.
I switched on the TV for a newsflash. It wasn’t long before reports started coming through, followed by the death toll. I turned it off and placed a white candle on the window. Dad was waiting at the leisure centre for news.
Family started arriving, my stomach was churning over and over. I felt so helpless, all I could do was pray, and that I did. I locked myself in the bathroom and kneeling at the edge of the bath, I prayed so fast and furious that I was getting muddled. I couldn’t stop or Aiden would die, I told myself. So I prayed harder and harder until I was exhausted. I bargained with God and made promises to Aiden, silly things like I would clean his room, iron his shirts and make him snacks. Sadly this wasn’t to be.
As the night turned into morning, the house resembled a wake with almost every seat taken. I felt claustrophobic, like I wanted to scream or hide. I had all sorts of emotions running through my veins.
As the clock ticked on, I heard the front door open. I sat at the kitchen breakfast table looking into the hallway. My legs where buckling from under me with sheer fear of what I might be told. I’d gladly wait another 14 hours to hear the news I did.
My mother was in the hall with her eyes fixated in the direction of the front door. Daddy walked down to meet her and without a word opened his arms and cradled her tightly. His face was pale and tear-stained. Gripping each other, they wept like children.
It’s a hard thing to watch your parents in a state of agony like that. They stood for what felt like hours.
I felt overcome by anger, I had waited so long for so little, I was angry with God, with Aiden, with everything. So many things were racing through my head. I wanted to know where Aiden was now, who was with him when he died, did he just lay there on the street on his own with no family to look after him, did he suffer, was he killed instantly?
He was so strong at 6ft 3ins, why couldn’t he handle the blast? My head was wrecked with so many questions. As I looked at the cups piled on the worktop I felt a surge of rage to swipe them on to the floor. The next few days would come and go as a blur, like a zombie. I couldn’t sleep, eat or even change my clothes.
I wanted time to stand still. How could I face the future knowing Aiden couldn’t? It just seemed unfair.
I felt guilty when I ate the foods he loved, I couldn’t watch the TV shows we enjoyed together and I was afraid to smile in case people thought I had forgotten about him. I was living in turmoil.
As my father began his campaign, with Omagh Support and Self-Help Group, we as a family were fully supportive. We certainly couldn’t have predicted the lead role he would take. Never a public speaker, this would take quite a bit of getting used too. More often than most, Dad could be found in raggy oily clothes with a blackened face and hands. To see him wear a suit was something of a novelty.
Over the following months after the bomb the group formed, we met the other bereaved families. We developed a close bond that only comes from common suffering. We could get emotional, talk endlessly about our loved ones and generally relax in each others’ company. Soon meetings were held in front living rooms and congregated around kitchen tables. With tea cups stacked high we conducted our business into the small hours. I did my share, often staying up typing letters and writing speeches under pressure with tight deadlines. I felt good, like I was doing something productive.
Campaigning will not bring Aiden back, but it just may well save the life of your brother, son, mother, sister or father from being the next victim. Perhaps Aiden would still be alive today if we stopped accepting our losses so graciously. We are a group of honest, heartbroken people who don’t want anyone else to go through a similar experience.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom, there are some decent, genuine people who have humbled us with messages of support, and for that we continue.
Ten years on, and emotions still run high. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Aiden or speak his name. I am married now and have a husband and son who will never know their brother-in-law or uncle.
I’ll always yearn for the days when everything felt normal but I have accepted that it will never be. Aiden has been stolen from my life and I will never let the thieves forget it.
l As told to David Young