Unbearable agony of Merle who lost her angel girl Kathryn (8) as deserving as any other atrocity in quest for truth
The last time Kathryn Eakin’s mother set eyes on her only daughter was forever frozen in her mind.
“I can still see her there, eight years old in her wee brown trousers, washing the shop windows, laughing and talking away to herself,” Merle told me.
“One minute she was shouting at me to come and see how she’d cleaned right into the corners of the windows like her daddy had asked, and the next minute she was dead.
“We were planning to make scones later that day. She loved baking.”
Kathryn was the youngest victim of the Claudy bombing. I interviewed Merle and her husband Billy on the 30th anniversary of the atrocity.
Merle passed away in August 2008 and Billy followed her six months later, but in so many ways both really died on July 31, 1972.
Billy bottled up his feelings, but Merle never stopped talking about her daughter.
Like Omagh, Claudy was a cross-community atrocity. Five Protestants and four Catholics were killed.
The poet James Simmons captured the horror: “An explosion too loud for your eardrums to bear/Young children squealing like pigs in the square/All faces chalk-white or streaked with bright red/And the glass, and the dust, and the terrible dead.”
Claudy, the village nestled at the foothills of the beautiful Sperrins, is where one of the ugliest acts of the Troubles occurred.
The Eakins owned the village grocery and hardware store. Billy took over the shop from his father.
Merle had come to Derry from the Republic to work in a bank. They met at a dance.
There’s a photo of Kathryn, aged five, earnestly putting potatoes into a bag at the very spot where she would later be killed. “At first, after the bomb went off, I didn’t realise the extent of her injuries,” recalled Billy.
“I picked her up off the pavement. She wasn’t moving but I thought she was ok because there was no blood. And then I saw a hole in her head. It was only the size of a pen nib, but it didn’t matter. Kathryn was gone.”
A single piece of shrapnel to the skull had ended her life. She was a mischievous child who loved liquorice and ghost stories, sand dunes and ice cream.
Kathryn had just returned from a glorious month in a caravan in Castlerock with her brother Mark, who was 12.
The two youngsters were as thick as thieves, although sometimes Mark and his mates would try to get rid of his tomboy wee sister when she tagged along with them on fishing trips.
They were earning pocket money on the morning of the bomb. Kathryn was cleaning the windows and Mark was told to brush the yard. But he was fooling around, squirting Windolene on the glass she had just cleaned.
He was only a few feet away from her when the bomb exploded. She was killed while he escaped with minor cuts.
The Eakins’ home and shop were destroyed in the blast, as were many of Kathryn’s belongings, but some things survived and her parents treasured them.
In a scrapbook, they placed her school reports, jotters in which she’d practised her sums, and pages where she’d scribbled down grocery lists — ‘potatoes, cabbage, beans’ — copying her father in the shop.
It was her wellington boots, still full of sand from the beach, which broke her parents’ hearts most.
The couple’s clothes were destroyed in the bomb. Merle had to borrow a dress to wear to her daughter’s funeral. Billy could never understand how the IRA left the car bomb after seeing Kathryn on the street, cleaning the windows.
“We received £58 compensation from the government for her life,” he told me. “We should have sent it back, but we used it to buy Mark a portable television.
“We were so devastated when Kathryn died that he lost out so we tried to make it up to him.”
Mark says his parents were never the same again: “They lost their love of life. They had their good days and their bad days, but there were more bad days than good.”
Christmas was particularly hard for Merle. “I don’t have to think about what I buy Kathryn. It’s the same present every year, a bunch of flowers. It’s not fair really,” she said.
While republicans rightly demand truth and justice from the State, it is hugely hypocritical that 50 years later the IRA still refuses to even admit responsibility for Claudy.
The secrets of that sordid day should be laid bare. These families have every bit as much right to full disclosure as those 10 miles up the road in Derry whose loved ones were slaughtered on Bloody Sunday.
Until her death, Merle talked to her daughter every day. “I can still hear her voice, but I long to hold her in my arms,” she told me.
“Had she lived, she’d be an adult woman with children of her own, but I can’t see Kathryn like that. She’s still just my wee girl, in her brown trousers, laughing as she cleans the windows.”