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Slaughter of the innocents: new book dedicated to children killed in the Troubles

In all, 186 children were killed during the 25 years of the Troubles. Claire McNeilly speaks to Joe Duffy and Freya McClements, the authors of a new book dedicated to keeping their memories alive, while overleaf victims' families describe the impact of their deaths

A boy in Ardoyne in 1969
A boy in Ardoyne in 1969
Children and the Army on the Shankill (1970)
Kids play on a bus barricade at Cromac Street (1969)
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Rory Gormley could have been celebrating his 61st birthday on Monday. The south Belfast schoolboy was, however, fatally wounded on November 27, 1972, when UVF gunmen opened fire on his dad's car as he was being driven to school. He was just 14.

Rory's father Peter and brother Paul were injured during the attack after the family were targeted because their school uniforms identified them as Catholics.

Mr Gormley, an eye surgeon in Belfast's Mater Hospital, lifted out his dying son and, as he ran down the street calling for help, he was fired on yet again.

This is just one of the many stories that stays with Joe Duffy. And it's just one of many accounts that readers will read for the first time in a new book by the RTE broadcaster and Freya McClements, northern correspondent of the Irish Times.

Children of the Troubles: The Untold Story of the Children Killed in the Northern Ireland Conflict is based on original interviews with almost 100 families.

It includes children who have never previously been publicly acknowledged as victims of the Troubles and is the product of a collaboration that took the authors two-and-a-half years - on top of their day jobs.

Joe (63), who is reluctant to single any child out in the book, eventually references this story, perhaps because he himself is now around the same age as young Rory would have been.

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"He built a bird table in the back garden and he saved every little creature that crawled all around him," Rory's sister Doreen told the book's authors.

"He actually joined the World Wildlife Fund and was very proud of it - he wanted to be a vet when he grew up."

"The book is not about blame," says Joe. "This is about reclamation, this is about remembrance, this is not about recrimination. This is simply about recording the names of the 186 children who died in the Troubles. It's about perished potential."

Having previously penned Children of the Rising: The Untold Story of the Young Lives Lost During Easter 1916, Dublin native Joe was on familiar territory with his Troubles tome - although he didn't realise it "was going to be so massive".

"I eventually discovered that 40 children were killed - 100 years after the rising," he says. "Waiting 100 years to report on those children who died is too long, because children don't have children, children don't have direct descendants.

"Somebody should have written a book in 1966, 50 years after it, when a lot of the families would still have been around."

He adds: "I was very conscious of the fact that 2019 was going to be the anniversary of the beginning of the Troubles, so I started this. I just thought the children should be remembered."

Joe began working on this project around 2015-2016, with former BBC journalist Freya enlisted as a freelance in January 2017 when he was looking for help in order to put forward a TV proposal, which was subsequently rejected.

But, by then, there was no turning back.

"To quote Maureen Rafferty - mother of Philip Rafferty, a 14-year-old, who was abducted and killed by the UDA on January 30, 1973 - 'My Philip has been forgotten. He wasn't special to anybody, but he was special to me. Why has he been forgotten? I want my child to count'," Joe says. "We decided to keep going and I can't believe we've got the book out."

Joe said he was "very struck" last year, on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, that "no one had an exact figure for the number of people killed".

Through the book, he says, "we're trying to humanise the numbers" and "to try and humanise the conflict". And he has his own, vivid memories to draw on.

"I remember when Bloody Sunday happened; I was 16," he says. "I grew up turning on the news every morning and hearing, 'Two more RUC men have been murdered', or 'Three men have been blown up in a bomb', or, 'Someone has been found dead in a ditch'.

"It was a world when the death toll just became so big that people became numbers."

He adds: "If you read this book, you realise that, if anyone fires a bullet from a gun, it will never stop travelling.

"Different people might get different things from it, but what they will get, if you flick open at any page, you'll get lost childhood, which is a tragedy."

Co-author Freya, who was initially brought on board for the ill-fated documentary, says working on the book had a profound emotional effect on her. "It's led by unique research and by families' memories - and a lot of those memories have never been recorded anywhere," she says.

"As a journalist, you're used to talking to people about traumatic experiences, it's part of the job here. But there was something intensely personal about this.

"We were doing so many interviews and there was one day I'll never forget. I was talking to a few families in Belfast and I was driving back up the road to Derry and I just couldn't stop crying.

"I ended up having to pull over and it felt like the weight of all the dead children was sitting on my shoulders."

She adds: "At the same time, it wasn't about me, or how I feel. I'd been speaking to two mothers who'd lost children that day and it really affected me."

There were tough times too while they were writing the book.

"Sitting in front of the computer late at night and I'd been writing an awfully hard piece about one of the children who was killed on Bloody Friday in Belfast and I went from that on to something equally traumatic and the sadness would take you, but also anger, actually, at this completely senseless waste of all these children. You feel like you get to know them," says Freya.

"In the book, we deliberately make it about the children. We talk about them, the person they were, rather than just what happened to them. And that was very important."

One of the deaths that stands out for Freya is that of 17-month-old baby Colin Nicholl, from north Belfast, who was killed on November 11, 1971, after an IRA bomb explosion.

"There's a lovely picture of him in the book on the beach in Portrush," she says. "His parents had taken him away that summer for his first holiday and you can see him there at a sandcastle and his father Jackie talks so movingly about how they adopted Colin and how their life changed when they adopted him.

"I remember going to meet him at his home and the way his eyes would just light up when he talked about Colin...

"Jackie still keeps Colin's little wooden rattle and it was a huge privilege when he let me hold Colin's rattle and I felt the teeth marks with my finger from where Colin had chewed on the rattle.

"That bomb was nearly 50 years ago and I was there holding this baby's rattle with his little teeth marks. That really got to me."

How could so many lost young lives not?

‘You think back on the wee things... it has left a void'

Colin Nicholl (17 months)

Belfast

Died December 11, 1971

Summer, 1971. Neil Diamond's song Sweet Caroline was on the radio, but the Nicholls had their own version.

"I used to hold him and I would sing, 'Sweet Colin mine'," says his father, Jackie.

That summer, Colin's parents had taken him on holiday to Portrush. "We had the greatest week," remembers Jackie. "We were staying in a boarding house and there were other kids there and they just lapped him up.

"They loved playing with him and, of course, he loved it."

The Nicholls had adopted Colin the year before.

Initially, Jackie had been uncertain, but as soon as he saw the baby, "everything in my life changed. I couldn't let him go. And then they said we had to wait a week to adopt him and it nearly broke my heart waiting.

"He was fantastic, a beautiful child.

"He probably would have grown up saying, 'Thank God I'd a different dad to you for looks'."

Colin had just begun talking - "mostly 'mum', none of the 'dad'," says Jackie - and was his granny Nicholl's pride and joy.

"My mum loved minding him. It was like a new lease of life for her."

With Colin's mother, Ann, away - her nephew had been knocked down and killed in England - his granny had been looking forward to babysitting that Saturday.

Instead, her neighbour, Helen Munn, offered to take the children for a walk. Colin and Tracey Munn (2), Helen's daughter, were killed when the IRA bomb exploded outside the Balmoral Furniture Company on Belfast's Shankill Road.

In England, Ann saw Colin being carried out of the wreckage, wrapped in a blanket; she had no idea it was her son.

The Nicholls went on to adopt two more boys; every time Jackie hears Sweet Caroline, he thinks of Colin. "You think of wee things, like whenever I was working and I came home, his wee head would have lifted, even though I know it was probably my own imagination telling me he knows I'm home.

"He'd have been almost 50 now. There's a void - he should have been here to look after us."

Jackie still keeps Colin's favourite toy - a wooden rattle given to him by his neighbour.

"Margaret next door gave it to him and it was with him all the time. You can see his wee teeth marks on it.

"I have it by my bedside and it's going to go into my coffin."

‘All we can do is pray... Alan was just in the wrong place at the wrong time’

Alan McCrum (11)

Loughbrickland, Co Down

Died March 15, 1982

Alan McCrum had just finished his Monday evening piano lesson. A pupil at Banbridge High School, Alan would make his way to Watson's jewellers on Bridge Street, where his neighbour, Mary McMullan, worked; she would give him a lift home.

The 11-year-old was one of five siblings - three older brothers and a younger sister.

It was half-past-five - time to go home. As Mary put away the last few trays of jewellery, Alan was chatting to the owner, Rodney Watson, about a watch Rodney had given him a few months before.

"I said, 'Well, you've still got the watch. How's it going?' 'It's going great,' said Alan, and then there was this huge bang. I hit the floor. The noise was fierce. I looked over the road and it was a mass of black. And then Mary said, 'Oh my God, Alan's been hit.'

An IRA car-bomb had exploded without warning. Thirty-four people were injured; Alan was killed when he was hit by a piece of flying debris.

Mary held Alan in her arms until the ambulance came and then drove, cut and shocked, to his parents' house to tell them what had happened.

His mother, Eleanor, said she did not hold any hatred towards the bombers. "What is happening now in Northern Ireland is very sad and terribly tragic," she said. "All we can do is pray.

"Alan was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A memorial service was held at Alan's school, where the principal, David Elliott, described him as a "bright, cheery pupil, who was popular with everyone in the school".

On the day of Alan's funeral, Banbridge High School was closed and his classmates formed a guard of honour as his coffin was carried into Banbridge Baptist Church.

"Alan was very jolly all the time and enjoyed himself," said one of his classmates, Bryson McClelland. "We will miss him very much."

"I played football with him at lunchtime," said another schoolfriend, Gary McAuley. "It's all very sad."

Extracted from Children of the Troubles: The Untold Story of the Children Killed in the Northern Ireland Conflict by Joe Duffy and Freya McClements, published by Hachette Books Ireland, priced £24.99

‘Mr Gormley lifted out his dying son and called for help but was fired at again’

Rory Gormley (14)

Belfast

Died November 27, 1972

Every evening, shortly after five o'clock, the 10 Gormley children would take their set positions at the table in the long, narrow working kitchen of their home in Windsor Park in Belfast - boys on one side, girls on the other - as their mother, Doreen, served out the dinner.

The fifth boy born into the busy household, 14-year-old Rory, was fascinated by nature.

"He built a bird table in the back garden and he saved every little creature that crawled all around him," says his sister, also called Doreen.

"He actually joined the World Wildlife Fund and was very proud of it - he wanted to be a vet when he grew up."

But with 10 children, the only pets allowed at home were rabbits and goldfish.

Rory's father, Peter, was an eye surgeon in Belfast's Mater Hospital and was involved with the civil rights movement; both parents were keen that their children get a good education and Rory and his brothers were sent to St Malachy's College on the Antrim Road. Holidays were spent in the family cottage in Co Donegal.

"We absolutely loved the holidays," remembers Doreen.

"They were so carefree. Rory would swim in the sea every day at Carrickfinn beach, play hurling and run around the sand dunes."

A "slim, fit, quiet boy", Rory had been an altar boy and was learning to play the piano accordion.

He loved playing soccer with his friends and following his favourite team, Everton, and never missed Match of the Day on Saturday night.

Each morning, Peter would drive three of his sons, their friend and Doreen to school on his way to the Mater.

Having dropped Doreen off first, at St Dominic's on the Falls Road, Peter took a shortcut through the loyalist Shankill area, as their usual route had been closed by the Army.

As he did so, UVF gunmen opened fire. Rory was killed; his father and his brother Paul were injured.

"Mr Gormley lifted out his dying son and, as he ran down the street calling for help, he was fired on again."

It was believed the family were targeted because their school uniforms identified them as Catholics.

From then on, there was an empty place at the dinner table. Rory's month's mind fell at Christmas - his presents were to include an encyclopaedia, some books on animals and an Everton annual.

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