Allison Morris examines some of the stories of Troubles victims outlined in the new archive.
A memorial archive, detailing the stories of lesser-known victims of the Troubles, has been placed in the Public Record Office for future generations to study.
The Legacy of the Past storytelling project details the victims’ personal stories and the often harrowing circumstances of their deaths.
Among the stories included in the project is that of a 17-month-old baby boy, killed when the IRA bombed the Balmoral furniture showrooms on the Shankill Road in December 1971.
Ulster Human Rights Watch have gathered nine stories, but say they intend to add more at a later date, adding that their motivation was to “ensure that stories of suffering and sacrifice are not lost”.
“It is essentially an effort to provide the family with a record of their bereavement, as a part of their journey of recovery, for a loved one who must never be forgotten”, the organisation added.
The heart-breaking story of Colin Nicholl’s death is one of those featured.
Baby Colin was the much-loved adopted son of Jackie and Anne Nicholl. At 17 months old, he had become a member of the family only the year before and was doted on by his parents. He wasn’t the only child to die in the IRA bombing of the Shankill Road furniture shop.
On the day of the explosion he was with a family friend and neighbour, Ellen Munn, and her two-year-old daughter, Tracey Jane. Colin and Tracey Jane were in the pram together being pushed past the Balmoral Showrooms when a no-warning bomb exploded, killing both young children and seriously injuring Ellen.
Two adults also died, Harold King and Hugh Bruce, and 13 people were injured.
Colin’s father Jackie had been playing a football match unaware of what had happened.
“At about 5.30pm I got to my mother’s house in Alloa Street in north Belfast. It was packed, with many of my family there: two of my sisters and one of my brothers. I said, ‘who is the party for?’
“But they were all in a bad way. My brother-in-law Tom said: “We have got bad news, Colin was killed”.
Colin’s funeral took place on Tuesday December 14, 1971. The cortege met with that of Tracey Jane on Clifton Park Avenue, after which the two tiny coffins journeyed together to the cemetery.
A storytelling archive was part of the legacy proposals contained in the Fresh Start Agreement and is also part of the Government’s controversial plans to deal with the past via an end to all criminal prosecutions.
However, in the absence of any movement on legacy, UHRW have pushed ahead and compiled their own storytelling archive, In addition to the tragedy of Colin Nicholl, there is the little-known story of Armagh woman Ruby Johnson, who died after the bus she was travelling on was petrol-bombed in February 1972.
Ruby suffered burns to 35% of her body and died in hospital from her injuries two months after the attack. She was 38 years-old.
Given the volatile times and the fact there were no initial fatalities, the incident was barely reported at the time.
There was very little newspaper coverage and as a result relatively little attention has been paid to Ruby’s murder. No one was ever convicted of the attack.
Using witness statements and information taken from an Historical Enquiries Team investigation into Ruby’s death, the circumstances surrounding it have been pieced together for the first time. Her story, while not fully told at the time, is now forever preserved in the Public Record Office in Belfast.
On the day of the attack Ruby got on the number 56 bus that travelled to Newtownhamilton from Armagh. The bus driver, Wilfred Allen, turned into Lower Irish Street from Friary Road when he encountered a large group of youths.
The crowd attacked the bus with stones and a petrol bomb. A petrol bomb came through the front window of the bus and landed on Ruby’s lap, engulfing her in flames.
A passing motorist drove Ruby to the Armagh City Hospital where she received treatment for her burns. By this time the mob had scattered.
The bus itself was barely damaged — Ruby having taken the brunt of the attack. However, the same bus would later be destroyed in an anti-internment riot in the Derrybeg Estate in Newry, on August 9, 1972.
Ruby was the eldest of a family of seven children born to Isaac and Annie Johnston, and grew up on the family farm at Ballintemple, a townland close to Newtownhamilton.
She had never married and worked as a housekeeper for a family in the area.
Her employer, Sylvia McRoberts, described her as “a very quiet girl, tidy, unassuming and devoted to her family and her work. She hadn’t seen much, she hadn’t really been out and about in the great wide world. Her life revolved around her family and around my children, who she doted on. I relied on her completely”.
“To use an old country expression, Ruby wouldn’t have hurt a fly. She was gentle and kind and giving”.
Ruby’s funeral took place on March 29, 1972. It was conducted by her minister Rev H.J. Clarke in the family home.
She is buried in the graveyard of Newtownhamilton Presbyterian Church.
At her funeral Rev Clarke said: “This is not an occasion for bitter words or political speeches. We can only sympathise with the bereaved and pay tribute to Ruby’s courage and patience throughout her long weeks of suffering. She was brave to the last”.
The death of three members of the same family, murdered in a sectarian attack on their drapery store in Dromore, Co Down, in 1976, makes for harrowing reading.
William Herron (64), his wife Doreen Elizabeth (58) — known as Beth — and daughter Noeline (27) all died when an IRA incendiary device went off, engulfing the shop and flat above where the family lived.
Two women had planted the device earlier that day, having posed as customers in the shop.
The device exploded after 1am, trapping the family upstairs.
Fire crews were beaten back by flames and when they eventually gained access to the building, they found Mr Herron on the first floor under a front window.
His daughter Noleen’s body was at the bottom of the stairs beside a telephone which had the receiver off. Her mother Beth was discovered in the kitchen lying below a window.
The following year a woman walked into Lisburn Road Police Station in Belfast and confessed that she was a member of Cumann na mBan, the all-female republican army.
During interview, she told detectives she had been present at a bomb making factory in Maghery when three incendiary devices were prepared.
The next day, when she heard the news about the Herrons’ murders, she realised that the three devices she had seen had been used to kill them.
The woman was sentenced to nine months for collecting information and being a member of a proscribed organisation. Two teenage sisters and a 19- year-old man were later convicted of manslaughter — all three were members of the IRA.
In June 1985, the then Northern Ireland Secretary Douglas Hurd released the two sisters from prison under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.
The Herron family have tried through various channels to find out why the Royal Prerogative of Mercy was granted to the two women, but were told only that the “record is permanently sealed”.
The nine stories in the archivecan be accessed at www.nidirect.gov.uk/services/search-pronis-ecatalogue and search for Reference number D4791