Alf McCreary: Bloody Sunday, and a hurt that haunts us to this day
On Monday night last, Christ Church at Infirmary Road in Londonderry held an hour of prayer for the city, on the eve of the publication of the Saville Report.
It was a timely Christian response to a situation which retains great hurt for many people. On Monday morning I heard Gregory Campbell on the radio and he rightly made the point that the feelings of those who lost loved-ones must be respected.
Those of us who have not gone through the white heat of such personal suffering cannot begin to understand what these people, and other families, have had to |endure.
The details and implications of the Saville Report on the events of Bloody Sunday are being debated rigorously elsewhere.
I do not intend to enter that |debate at the moment except |to record my deep unease at the massive cost of £191m, including some £100m in legal fees. That |is a lot of money in this world where two-thirds of the people are starving.
However, the publication of Lord Saville’s report brings me back directly to the events of that terrible time, which I reported at first hand for this newspaper.
My recollection is that of a city in shock and deep mourning. On the day after the shootings, I went with a doctor’s wife into the Bogside to gauge local reaction.
We were accompanied by a reporter from the Glasgow Herald and the lady said to him: “I would advise you not to speak with your Scots accent down here because some of the British paratroopers yesterday were Scottish.”
I also recall speaking to a Protestant who said to me that Christ had used force to evict moneylenders from the temple. That seemed to me then to be a totally inappropriate comment, as it still does some 38 years later.
The funerals were sad and desolate. I remember writing about distraught relatives who, in some cases, had to be supported physically as they made their way into the Cathedral. One of the mourners was the Derry singer Josef Locke, who had made his name internationally as a celebrated tenor.
The coffins at the front were a silent witness to the awfulness of the situation, and as the funeral service proceeded with its inherent liturgical dignity, I watched the then Roman Catholic Primate Archbishop William Conway as he sat impassively near the altar.
In spite of the great sorrow of the day, the beautiful music from the choir and organ wafted across the church as a kind of healing balm in the midst of great tragedy.
Even then I was struck by the similarity of our hymns and worship in that Catholic service, which was not totally alien to that of my own Presbyterian Church.
I wondered then, as I do now, what it was all about — so much suffering between two communities which had and still have |so much in common as human |beings, including the many on different sides who worship the same God.
Towards the end of the service, I had to leave early to meet our afternoon deadlines for the final edition of the newspaper. There were no cellphones in those days, so I had to rush out of the church and across a silent and deserted city to find a public telephone in order to file my report.
On the way home, I drove back with a feeling of great sadness. Even now there is a certain part of the road when I drive from Derry to Belfast where I can still recall the awfulness of that day.
It was the sort of experience which you could not forget for the rest of your life.
Today the debate rages on about the rights and wrongs of Bloody Sunday. What I remember is a bleak winter’s day, the line of coffins and the grieving relatives and other mourners in the desolation of that church.
First and last this was a human story and a terrible tragedy for everyone involved.
The awful events since then and the attempts to face up to the truth, however flawed or imperfect, will not bring back the dead, but some day there may be a healing peace for those who suffered and for all of us who helplessly looked on.
I was a young reporter then, but I, too, will never forget the aftermath of Bloody Sunday.