Belfast Telegraph

'Every day I think of Marie and what happened. I know we'll meet again'

Joan Wilson vividly recalls the IRA Poppy Day atrocity of 1987 that robbed her of a daughter and propelled her family into global headlines. She tells how she hopes that the bombers have repented, but she never wants to meet them

By Alf McCreary

Thirty years on from the IRA's Poppy Day bombing, Joan Wilson recalled the horrific events that claimed her daughter Marie's life as though it had happened just yesterday.

As she sat on the sofa in her living room, Joan was flanked by the picture of Marie in her nurse's uniform, and a picture of her late husband, Senator Gordon Wilson, who was badly injured in the explosion that claimed 11 lives.

Gordon died several years later in 1995 from natural causes, but the tragic loss of Marie in the no-warning Provisional IRA bombing on November 8, 1987, and the untimely death of their son Peter in a car accident in December 1994 weighed heavily on him until his dying day.

Some people believe that after suffering so much from the loss of Marie, the sudden death of his son broke his heart.

As Joan reflected on the past, the presence of Marie and Gordon was almost tangible in that room where the Wilsons had shared so many happy occasions before the explosion struck deeply at the very heart of that innocent family.

"It took place many years ago, but I remember the details of that day as if it was yesterday," she said.

"My last memory of Marie in the full vitality of her youth was of her crossing the back yard of our house to join her father Gordon in the car before driving off to the Cenotaph.

"There was mizzling rain, and I shouted to Marie: 'Have you got your umbrella?'

"She replied, typically: 'Don't be silly, mother, of course I have!' The next time I saw her was in the Erne Hospital, and she died later that afternoon."

The next days were a blur of heartache and of trying to cope with the funeral and the full glare of the media, who were covering what was then a world story.

However, the reporters and cameras soon moved on to other things, and the Wilsons were left to endure the burden of an unending grief in the knowledge that their beloved daughter would never be home again.

Three decades later, Joan said: "The waves of grief and pain still come and go, but as the years pass, the pauses between those waves get longer.

"Some people say that time heals, but it doesn't. It only teaches you how to cope better."

Joan does not dwell on self-pity.

"I could never do that. No matter how bad you feel, you have to make yourself get up and go, do something and keep busy until the temptation towards self-pity passes," she said.

"However, you cannot help but think at times of what might have been. How would Marie's career as a nurse have progressed, maybe she would have married and had a family?

"Sadly, you have to tell yourself: 'These things did not happen, so don't go down that road'."

In the long aftermath of Marie's death Joan kept herself busy by visiting other people who had been bereaved.

"I particularly met widows, and families who had lost a young son or a daughter. I took with me a copy of a book that had been written about Marie, and I did my best to bring hope and comfort wherever I could," she explained.

"You only begin to understand fully the deep grief of bereavement which people are experiencing when you have gone through that experience yourself.

"I often recall the words of one of my teachers at Stranmillis College, who closed his book of notes at the end of one of his lectures and said: 'The greatest teacher of all in life is experience'.

"How true that is."

After the Enniskillen bomb, and Gordon's memorable words that "I bear no ill will", there was even greater international coverage.

"I still get Christmas cards and Easter messages from people in Canada and Australia, and from others in the British Isles. Some of those people in England, Scotland and Wales still come to see me," Joan said.

She has always been deeply conscious of all the other victims of the Enniskillen bombing, and of the Troubles in general.

"People on all sides lost loved ones, and so many others were injured, that it is impossible to express the degree of heartache and suffering all round. It is my dearest hope that we will have a lasting peace in our country, but it is difficult to know how things will turn out in the long run."

Just when the Wilson family were trying to come to terms with Marie's death, they were rocked by Peter's death in December 1994, and then, some six months later, by the death of Gordon himself.

"I will never forget the night Peter died, and once again we were plunged into grief. Later on Gordon died so unexpectedly from a cerebro-vascular illness. I still miss him terribly, but I dream about him frequently," she said. "Shortly after he died I was feeling nervous because I had to make a short speech at a church event. The night before doing this I dreamt about Gordon - he was smiling and happy, and he pointed to his wristwatch. Then he disappeared.

"Gordon was always punctual, and I was always a few minutes late. So in his dream he was telling me to be on time the next day when I was due to make my speech. It gave me strength and comfort to know that somehow he was still looking after me.

"Gordon was a good husband and father, and a truly great and loving man.

"When he said about those who had killed Marie 'I bear no ill-will', he really meant it.

"Even before that awful Enniskillen bomb he had watched other atrocities on television, and he always said to me: 'There's got to be a better way'."

Despite the tragedies that Joan has lived through, she has managed to rebuild her life and to take comfort from her large, loving and supportive family, including her only surviving child Julie-Anne.

"At the time of Marie's death I had two grandchildren, and later three more little ones came along. I now have five great-grandchildren, and I thank God daily for that, and for the love and care of my family and friends."

Throughout her ordeals Joan's deep Christian faith has grown even stronger.

"I still read a passage from the Bible every day, and I know that I have been able to come through everything because of the strength I have been given by God. He has been and still is with me every step of the way."

Joan, now aged 86 and a little frail, still retains great dignity and charm. During lunch in a local restaurant on the day we talked she was approached by two of her former music pupils, now young women, who came across to our table to pay their respects.

Reflecting on her life in general, Joan told me: "I have been spared by God for these 30 years since Marie's death, and for whatever time I have left I want to make the most of each day - to appreciate the beauty of a flower or the power of the sea and all of nature, and I want to try to bring help and comfort to as many people as I can."

Nevertheless, the November time of Remembrance and the anniversaries of the Enniskillen bombing are always difficult. Each November Joan lays a poppy wreath on the grave of Marie and Gordon, as well as Gordon's late sister, and she also lays a wreath on her father's grave nearby.

"I no longer attend the Remembrance Day service at the Enniskillen Cenotaph because I cannot stand for long periods. This year members of my family will attend the Cenotaph service as they always do, but I will go to the local Methodist church early to pray and meditate, and they will join me later.

"I think daily of Marie and what happened, but I would never want to meet the people who planted and detonated the bomb. I wonder if they are still alive and if they realise how they robbed all of us of so much. I hope that they have truly repented because that's the only way they could obtain God's forgiveness."

After the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing life will go on for Joan as she remembers the past and makes the best she can of the present. She is also looking forward to the future.

"On the day after Marie was killed an old school friend of mine came to our house and she immediately drew me aside to talk, away from the buzz. She said: 'Joan, for you Marie will always be 20'.

"She was right. I still think of Marie as my bright, rebellious and deeply loving daughter. I know we will meet again some day. I think we both deserve that, and I am convinced that it will happen through the power and strength of God Almighty. That will be a wonderful day for both of us."

Alf McCreary is the co-author with the late Gordon Wilson of Marie: A Story From Enniskillen, as well as the biography of Gordon, An Ordinary Hero. He is also the co-author with Joan of a book of bereavement meditations titled All Shall Be Well

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