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Reporting The Troubles: Death on my doorstep

In a landmark new book, Reporting The Troubles, compiled by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little and published today by Blackstaff Press, a total of 68 renowned journalists reflect on their experiences of working in Northern Ireland. Their compelling and deeply personal accounts recall the victims they have never forgotten and the events that have never left them. Over the next three days, the Belfast Telegraph will be carrying extracts from a publication that is also a remarkable act of remembrance

By Richard Kay

Sunday, April 8, 1984 had dawned with bright sunshine. The promise of spring was in the air as Tom Travers, his wife Joan and their 22-year-old daughter Mary set off from home in a leafy suburb of south Belfast for the short walk to church. They were well on time for midday Mass at nearby St Brigid's, where the family were popular and frequent members of the congregation.

On the three previous Sundays Mr Travers had attended Mass at the same church, not far from where I lived. Such a detail would hardly matter to most people but Tom Travers was a magistrate, a public servant who saw it as nothing less than his duty to serve his community. But it was a duty that came at a terrible price for it made him a 'legitimate target' for the IRA because of his role in the hated British judicial system.

Routine creates a pattern; his visits to St Brigid's had been logged, his comings and goings recorded. By the time Mass was over a trap had been sprung, an ambush set, and in moments the Travers' lives were to change forever.

After saying their devotions, the family stayed to chat to friends outside the church for 15 minutes before retracing their steps for home and the promise of Sunday lunch.

The prelude to murder began with a woman in white walking a Pomeranian dog. She was the lookout. As the Travers family passed the entrance to a tennis club two men, one stout in a grey suit, the other younger in brown, leapt out from behind some bushes. Both were armed with handguns and from point-blank range they fired round after round at the family.

Mr Travers was shot six times yet somehow survived. His slim, dark-haired daughter Mary, two terms into the job of her dreams as a primary school teacher, was hit once through the spine, killing her almost instantly.

At the time it was thought she had been trying to shield her father from the terrorists' bullets. It was certainly the kind of selfless action that her friends said a young woman who abhorred violence would do. But for a jammed gun, Mrs Travers would almost certainly have been dead too.

Later Tom Travers described those terrifying seconds. "Mary lay dying on her mum's breast, her gentle heart pouring its pure blood on to a dusty street in Belfast. The murderer's gun, which was pointed at my wife's head, misfired twice. Another gunman shot me six times. As he prepared to fire the first shot I saw the look of hatred on his face, a face I will never forget."

The same handgun had been used with deadly effect to murder another member of the judiciary, Judge William Doyle (above), after he had left the same chapel a year earlier.

Even in a city hardened to mass murder, where one terrorist outrage was matched by the degeneracy of another, the killing of Mary Travers plumbed the very depths of inhumanity.

There had been many other ghastly atrocities during my three years reporting from Belfast: the shooting of worshippers at prayer in a gospel hall, a headmaster cut down in a hail of bullets in front of his class, and soldiers blown to pieces while off duty at a pub social night.

For each and every one of those lives lost there were countless more left to grieve - sons without fathers, wives without husbands, and in Belfast that April day, a mother without a daughter.

To Gerry Adams and the apologists of Sinn Fein, the IRA struggle was one of "humanity, dignity, humour and vitality". In reality it was one of cruelty, brutality and cold-hearted wickedness. There was nothing noble in the slaughter of Mary Travers and there was certainly nothing brave.

That it should remain nearly 35 years later such a powerful memory was perhaps because it happened on my doorstep, but also because the murder scene was so far removed from the killing fields of north and west Belfast.

Tree-lined Windsor Avenue, where the Travers family lived, was peopled by solid, middle-class folk. Thomas Andrews, the designer of the Titanic and who perished on its maiden voyage in 1912 after assisting many into lifeboats, had been a resident. Here, Protestant and Catholic live side by side with no wall to divide them as there are to separate loyalist and republican areas in other parts of the city.

The family's route to church that spring morning took them past the manicured courts of the Windsor Lawn Tennis Club, a beacon of genteel respectability for almost a century and where the Troubles rarely intruded.

When I moved from London to Belfast in 1982 it was in a quiet residential street parallel to Windsor Avenue that I settled. With the Queen's University campus nearby and student accommodation all round, it felt reassuringly familiar in an unfamiliar city.

An alleyway ran between the back of my flat and Windsor Avenue. On sunny days I sometimes sat there. Had I done so that day I might have seen the men who had turned their guns on the softest of soft targets fleeing for their waiting getaway car and the welcoming embrace of the nationalist Twinbrook estate in west Belfast.

We don't need to ask what kind of men they were. We all knew. They were men for whom assassination at close quarters of a young woman was no more than a regrettable inconvenience, skilfully supported by the likes of Adams, for whom the ends always justify the means.

How ironic that while their intended victim, unarmed Tom Travers who refused a bodyguard, would survive, the girl they left bleeding to death was a teacher at a school in Twinbrook's neighbouring republican stronghold of Andersonstown.

The Ulster violence had seen so many funerals, desolate each and every one, but the Requiem Mass for Mary Travers was profoundly moving. It was at the very church Mary and her father had attended before they were shot.

Across town, Holy Child Primary School closed its doors and sent six of Mary's pupils from class 3A to her funeral with poignant messages of love and loss.

The children were as devoted to her as she was to them.

With a good degree from Queen's and a teacher training certificate from Belfast's St Mary's College, Mary had embarked on a career brimming with promise and dedication. She loved music, played the harp, helped with the school choir and supervised recorder classes. A life of opportunity stretched ahead.

Her death was one more senseless murder.

  • Richard Kay is editor-at-large and columnist for the Daily Mail. He was the paper's Belfast correspondent from 1982 to 1985

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