Belfast Telegraph

McGurk's bar massacre: The day my life was shattered

By John mcGurk

Being buried alive by a UVF bomb in my father’s bar is buried deep, very deep in my consciousness.

Memories of staring death in the face in the utter blackness of a collapsed home — a premature tomb — are locked away somewhere inside me.

It’s mental survival by necessity — the human spirit determined to get on with life and make the best of what you have.

But even 40 years on, lightning quick flashes of sheer horror can occasionally strike my senses.

My happy childhood memories before the bombing will forever be darkened by the murderous shadow of what happened on that cold December night just three weeks before Christmas 1971.

Singing for my mother and aunts; sleeping peacefully in my dad’s arms on a Sunday night; great ‘bucket ‘n’ spade’ holidays to the seaside; playing football on the deserted city streets are all blasted sideways by the catastrophic consequences of that merciless loyalist murder attack.

That particular Saturday night, I was playing table soccer with my brother Gerard and his friends Seamus Kane and Jimmy Cromie in the sitting room above my dad’s bar. I was 10 years old.

I could hear the happy chattering of the customers, if I pressed an ear to the floor.

Suddenly, there was an ominous boom and a horrific rumbling noise.

Then came a chasm of hellish roars; swirling, gushing wind — a vortex of nightmares sucking me in and tumbling me around and around in kaleidoscopic freefall.

Nothingness, unconsciousness. Then an awakening into the unimaginable — blackness. Was I dreaming? Was I dead? Furious scrambling, desperate attempts to find out where I was.

In the white heat of pure terror, I realised that I was trapped under slabs of concrete and tons of rubble — walls which used to be my happy family home.

I was utterly alone, trapped in the abyss, roaring for help; and smelling gas as I feverishly recited my childhood prayers over and over again.

Any movement was dangerous. Sand and grit and dust would fall and sprinkle itself onto my body and into my parched mouth. I knew that I desperately needed to preserve my voice — my only lifeline to be heard, to be saved from suffocation or choking.

I could feel our old wine red velvet settee upturned with my left hand. Maybe its size had helped shield me from death.

Was it 30 minutes that I was trapped and unable to move in the dark? Was it 40 minutes? Was it an hour or two hours? It felt like an eternity.

I could hear noises which filled me with hope — the shouts of local people and emergency services clawing their way through the rubble.

But the agonising sounds of others trapped in the debris also filled my senses with dread.

In the middle of that nightmare, I thought that I could hear a tiny female voice. All it could whimper was a weak ‘help’.

It sounded like the low wail of a ghost, calling directly to me. Was it my sister Maria? I roared her name over and over again. But there was no response, no recognition... just a dwindling, weaker call, until I could hear nothing more above the noise of others literally pleading for their lives.

Eventual rescue for me came like a coffin lid being opened — with dirt and rubble cascading on top of me.

But those minutes of salvation would later be tinged with the heartbreaking sadness that the man I remember pulling me from the wreckage, John O’Hanlon, was later tortured and killed by a UVF gang just seven months later.

Other slivers of memory still peek through today from that night.

I remember the overwhelming emotion of my injured father holding my hand in the back of a shared ambulance and me wondering why a priest was anointing me.

Memories of the subsequent days are confined to some black corner of my mind.

But at times like this, when I reluctantly prise open that Pandora’s box, I can recall other moments of the day that robbed me and my brothers of our mother, sister, uncle — and our childhood innocence.

I clung to a desperate lingering hope that my mother and sister had not been caught up in the blast, as they had gone to Saturday night mass in St Patrick’s Church.

But I sobbed and sobbed as one of my aunts cradled me in her arms the next afternoon and whispered “your mammy has gone to Heaven”.

There are other slivers of recollections in my mind — like my agitated refusal to say “goodbye” to my mother, sister and uncle as their bodies lay in O’Kane’s funeral parlour and the silent resentment I felt as strangers pointed and whispered as we passed by.

My youthful inability to comprehend how my father could forgive the bombers mellowed with maturity and transformed into heart-bursting admiration for his extraordinary Christian compassion.

I have no, or very little, recollection of my mother, sister and uncle’s funerals. Even after all these years, the pain must still be too searing for me to unlock and recall.

Nightmares came, but eventually faded away. So too did a recurring dream, where my mother had survived, only to be shattered every time I opened my eyes to daylight.

During my tender years, my aunts and uncles – who helped to take care of us – protected me for the most part from the outrageous government and security force briefings which spread the lie that the IRA had been responsible for the bomb.

But even as a young boy, I could not fail to notice how the innocent people of the McGurk bar tragedy were omitted from some media reports about the Troubles or portrayed as culpable for their own fates.

My father suffered the prejudice of government attitudes — when his paltry compensation award, for the loss of his business and his loved ones, was reduced on appeal.

As a young teenager, I was bullied by the legal profession to accept an insultingly small, out-of-court settlement — such was the perception even then, that my family had somehow supported terrorists and that we were not deserving of recompense for losing everything but the clothes we stood in.

The money meant absolutely nothing to me.

So, shaking with rage, I told them that if they were prepared to go through what I had endured for a few hundred pounds, then they could have the money.

Yes, it all still hurts after all of these years. But I also realise that I am so lucky to be alive and so lucky that my father taught me never to hate anyone just because of their religion.

He taught me to respect every human being of every race, creed and colour.

Thanks to him, I have the faith to forgive.

But I will never forget the terrible loss of innocent lives on that life changing, hate-fuelled night.

Source Sunday Life

Belfast Telegraph

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