RUC officer nicknamed Mr Lucky by medics inspired new Troubles play In Search of Hope
Ahead of its run in Co Down next week, acclaimed local historian Philip Orr tells Ivan Little about the heroic policeman who inspired his new drama, and why we need to be able to say the unsayable about the Troubles
The surgeons called him Mr Lucky. And that's because they were astounded - happily so - that the young policeman in their care after an IRA ambush in Belfast managed to live to tell the tale of his horrific ordeal.
Another officer died in the terror attack in the city centre and the critically injured policeman had to be resuscitated in the operating theatre several times after he was shot in the head, neck and cheek in front of shocked shoppers who tried their best to help the patrol.
The wounded man's eyes, ears and nose were all badly damaged and he was on life support for several weeks but he was able to prove the medics wrong by surviving and rebuilding his life.
Now 'Mr Lucky's' remarkable story has been told in a challenging new play by former drama teacher and military historian Philip Orr.
The Carrickfergus writer developed his play, In Search of Hope, after coming into contact with the victim and his wife through an organisation in North Down called Decorum, whose members are mainly former police officers who were injured during the Troubles.
What the couple told Philip horrified him but inspired him to suggest turning their nightmare into a play.
After lengthy conversations Philip set about composing intertwined monologues about the devastating legacy that the shooting had left - physically and emotionally - on their lives. The couple were also keen to talk about their faith which they now say helped pull them through their crises.
Philip says: "Part of what they were dealing with was how to navigate their experiences within the context of their faith."
Philip won't identify the RUC family or the exact location of the actual shooting because the victims want to remain anonymous as they still live in fear, despite Northern Ireland's more peaceful climate.
The play, which will initially be seen in four venues in Co Down, does not dwell on the by-now common threads of truth and justice.
"It's more an attempt to bring to life what happened to this family, in particular in the face of the unexpected awfulness and horror," says Philip.
The story of the policeman's wife and how she coped after the ambush is hugely significant in the drama, according to Philip.
"She has the dominant role in many ways and that's very important because it shows how partners and families were impacted by violence which also ripples out into a wider circle and community," says Philip, who believes the policeman's narrative is deeply touching too.
"He paints a very vivid picture of what it is like to be shot and to come through what was a near-death experience.
"He also recounts the psychological as well as the physical struggles to recover. Then there's his survivor guilt as he mourned for his dead colleague."
One of the most powerful episodes in the play is the revelation that several years after the ambush a number of civilians who witnessed it and helped the casualties made contact with the injured policeman
Philip says: "They were deeply affected by what happened and they wanted to see him again. It was very moving."
The policeman is still receiving medical care, including grafts, many years after he was shot, and because no one has ever been charged with the attack he and his wife apparently always have a dread of encountering his assailants in the street.
Philip explains: "The question of forgiveness is also addressed in the play along with the tests that the couple's faith had to endure after the shooting.
"It's a very close-up and intimate insight into how one couple endeavoured to wrestle with and make sense of everything that had gone on."
The policeman's recovery has been long and arduous and a series of reconstructive surgeries have been carried out to rebuild his face.
But for every physical issue he's had to overcome, the policeman has also experienced a series of mental difficulties, some of them totally unexpected.
Philip says: "One problem for the police officer and his wife was that they found it hard to return to the centre of Belfast because of what their visits might re-awaken.
"They did go back eventually but their reluctance was yet another legacy of the Troubles which faced countless thousands of people in Northern Ireland.
Philip says: "I've been amazed to discover so many ripples coming out of the conflict. And I'm not talking in a partisan way. These issues span the whole of society coming out of the Troubles."
Philip believes it's important that the stories of the Troubles are recorded for posterity: "I think plays like this one will serve as a shocking reminder to future generations of what it was like to live through an awful time like this.
"It's crucial that we don't forget the Troubles. You just have to look at the book Lost Lives which records all of the deaths to realise how many people were caught up in the violence over so many years.
"And each and every one of the people who died had a story with an individual depth to it and which is relevant to a family today.
"What we have done with the play is to take one particular story of one victim, but because security force involvement was so massive in the Troubles I think the play will echo with many families."
Philip has long been a chronicler of conflicts and history. His book, The Road to the Somme, is generally acknowledged as the definitive work on the First World War battle which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Ulster soldiers.
In the past 12 years, Philip has been involved in a range of work on behalf of museums, community groups and good relations units of councils. He has given talks and taken classes on history and identity as well as writing plays for local drama groups including the Kabosh Theatre Company.
His recent dramatic subjects have included the Ulster Covenant: 1916 and Martin Luther.
Philip got involved with the Decorum group in Bangor at the request of Ards and North Down Council, who wanted him to listen to members talking about their experiences.
After meeting the injured policeman and his wife, Philip realised they had a powerful story to share. "I knew it would make a strong piece of theatre," says Philip, who consulted with the couple at every stage of the writing process and told them they had full authority over the script to make any changes they wanted.
Before each 40 minute performance by actors Louise Parker and Xander Duffy, Philip will give a talk to set the play in context and afterwards it's hoped there will be a question and answer session with the audience.
Philip doesn't know if the play will have a life beyond the four shows, but he hopes more similar projects will follow to spread other stories of people who suffered in the violence.
He says: "I think plays like this one are precisely what we need in order to heal as we reflect back on the era of the Troubles. I am a great believer in the power of the theatre to explore the past. It enables some unsayable things to be said and very difficult subjects to be broached."
As for the couple at the centre of Philip's play, he says they have come out of their traumatic ordeal 'remarkably well' and they have tried to resume a normal life.
Philip adds: "There is no bitterness and there is a calm ability after all these years to handle the world they find themselves living in. They are a most impressive family."
In Search of Hope is at the British Legion, Comber, Nov 7; Thriving Life Church, Newtownards, Nov 8; British Legion, Bangor, Nov 10 and Village Hall, Ballywalter, Nov 11. The play runs from 7-9pm each night. Light refreshments will be served and there will be an optional discussion afterwards