Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Oswald Bradley: A decent man who didn't deserve the hand fate dealt him

Oswald Bradley, who died in a swimming accident in Bessbrook
Oswald Bradley, who died in a swimming accident in Bessbrook

I've been very bothered by the death of Oswald Bradley. For though I never knew him personally, I've known many people like him. For that I'm grateful.

Oswald Bradley, the man scorched by the Troubles in January 1976 and who, nearly four decades later, in July 2014, drowned in Bessbrook Pond and became a footnote to those years of violence, was the sort of man who brought us through the darkest of times.

Here was someone who could have lived out his days fired by bitterness, distrust, even hatred of 'the other side', and people would have understood. Yet Mr Bradley did not let hatred consume him, or seek revenge, or withdraw into his own sort. In fact, he was far from that, as the immensely touching testimonies to his character bore out.

Of course, you wouldn't get that sense of Mr Bradley immediately from the circumstances of his death, drowning while trying to swim across a lake to remove two tricolours and replace them with a Union flag. You might think, 'Was he some sort of headcase?'

And, yes, it is perplexing. Up to a point. A 68-year-old man – no matter how warm the weather, how still the water – striking out from the shore. Why take that risk?

Wasn't the pull of his loved ones back on dry land enough to temper any such impulse, to make him take a step back from the water's edge? Didn't he hear his grandchildren's laughter ringing in his head?

But there was also the fact that something mattered that much to someone; that they were driven to do something.

And so the tragedy began to – at least in part – explain itself. Pictures from the newspaper files of those left hurt and abandoned. Oswald, outside Stormont, holding a poster with a photo of a Kingsmills victim, who himself now looked like what he was, a man out of the history books.

For Oswald Bradley, his cousin John McConville would always be 20 years old, the age he was when he was cut down by the IRA by the side of a van with nine workmates.

For Oswald, then 30, the rest of his life had been shadowed by the ghost of the young man who never married, or had children, or grandchildren, like Oswald himself. Weddings, births, Christmas, the empty chair. His own existence held up as a mirror to the nothingness of another's.

And yet Oswald's life had also played out in a quite extraordinary way. A painter and decorator by trade, he'd worked for and made many friends across the divide. Friends who came to mourn him.

This wasn't just about business contracts. This was the commerce of the heart and soul. These were deep bonds, forged in shared values, experiences and respect, and in spite of a great hurt; all the more powerful because of what had happened.

A daily, quiet outworking on both sides of decency, trust and regret. People trying to get through, to hold on to the generations-old kinships of the townlands while all around the world went mad. People rising above it.

"Oswald was jolly and good fun but... there were things he was committed to and believed in," UUP MLA Danny Kennedy said. "But it did not compromise his ability to mix with people and cross the political and sectarian divide." There were heartfelt tributes, too, from people who were friends first and SDLP politicians second.

Like I said, I've known people like Oswald. One dark night, I stepped alone into the isolated country house of an elderly, perilously ill uncle who lived by himself. I started to make my way down a back hall to his bedroom, then heard a voice.

An intruder? He'd been robbed before. Heart pounding, I reached for a poker. And then I recognised the voice and there, feeling his way in the darkness towards me, hand outstretched, was my uncle's neighbour. One of 'the other side' out late at night to check on the old boy. Letting himself in with his own key.

My uncle flew the flag each Twelfth. This would never have struck his neighbour as anything other than what he'd expect my uncle to do. Their friendship was on another level altogether.

Too many shared kindnesses. Good times. Bad times. Glad to be honest and themselves, and there for each other across a half-acre.

Seamus Heaney spoke of Kingsmills when he received his Nobel Prize. There was only one Catholic in the group of 11 men lined up to die beside the van and it was presumed that the gunmen were loyalists. One Protestant worker squeezed the Catholic's hand, as if to say "We'll not betray you", but he declared himself anyway. He was thrust aside, and the Protestants were gunned down.

Heaney remarked that the future of Ireland lay not in the gunfire, but the hand-squeeze. Oswald Bradley was a man who would have reached out his hand to you.

Somehow from someone or something or from all of us, Oswald deserved better than to have to try to put things right himself on his own at Bessbrook Pond.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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