Children of the Troubles: Loss of lives that had barely begun

Children of the Troubles: Loss of lives that had barely begun

‘Children of the Troubles’ recounts the largely untold story of the lost boys and girls of Northern Ireland, and those who died south of the border, in Britain and as far afield as West Germany, writes Dan Buckley.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Northern Ireland during the Troubles will remember the smells... burning tyres, petrol bombs being thrown at the RUC and British Army troops by lawless youngsters, some as young as 10.

Above all, there was the smell of fear and it made no difference whether it came from a child, a parent, a paramilitary or a soldier with a shaking gun who looked young enough to be in school.

Sounds — the thud, thud of the big Lambeg drums that mark the start of the month long marching season, the crunch of a Saracen car as it tears into a baracade, the cracking of bonfires, the dull roar of a Provo car bomb and the shouts of terrified shoppers, the scream of tracer bullets fired by police.

The biggest sound of all was the silence that followed each bombing, each atrocity, with people too numb to speak or cry out.

What was rarely heard — at least in Belfast in the early 1980s, was the laughter of children, a daily,comforting sound south of the border. They played in the streets of Belfast but their games were strange, almost surreal, parodies of childhood.

A milk bottle with a rag in it would mimic a petrol bomb;instead of Cowboys and Indians, it would be toy soldiers with makeshift balaclavas acting out the grown-up horrors around them. Children from loyalist areas would don a makeshift sash and march up and down the street.

This was a city where loyalist mothers would only take their children to a ‘Protestant’ park. Nationalist mothers would watch their youngest play in the streets while they did their knitting outside the front door. Such stolen moments of tranquility rarely lasted and were quickly shattered by violence, death, and unspeakable horror.

Nine year old Patrick Rooney had the distinction of being the first child to be killed in the Troubles, the victim of a stray RUC bullet on August 15, 1969.

He lived on the ground floor in the Divis Flats of West Belfast with his parents Neely and Alice and siblings. It was a night when Belfast was on fire as thousands of Catholics were burned out of their homes by loyalist attackers.

The family were in the firing line and planning to escape to Neely’s sister’s house. As Alice reached to grab a coat, she felt a bullet graze her cheek.

“Then Patrick slid down the wall,” says Alice, in a recollection gathered among hundreds of others in Children Of The Troubles by Joe Duffy and Freya McClements.

Billed as the untold story of the children killed in the Northern Ireland conflict, the book has a foreword by former president, Mary McAleese.

The authors could hardly have chosen better. Unlike most political figures on either side of the border, she has lived the fear as well as the hopes of the Troubles.

The president was born into a Catholic family named Leneghan which lived in North Belfast.

They suffered sectarian intimidation in the early years of the Troubles,including a machine-gun attack on their home. Her family ran a pub in Belfast, the Long Bar on Leeson St. It was the target of a car bomb in October, 1972.

A few years later, on her wedding day, two of her best friends were murdered.

She also knows despair and recounts her encounter with it in the wake of the Omagh bombing, the IRA’s last, sickening hooray a year into her presidency.

She headed north and spent the day sitting in a hospital in Omagh trying to comfort a bereft group of Spanish students, two of whom were killed. They were among 29 slaughtered that day, as well as two unborn twins. “I felt my energy evaporate in Omagh: those deaths almost made me lose hope.”

Patrick Rooney was the first, but not the last victim. In all, 186 children died as a direct result of the conflict, from the teenage striker who scored two goals in a Belfast schools cup final, to the aspiring architect who promised to build his mother a house, to the five-year-old girl who wrote in her copy book on the day she died: “I am a good girl. I talk to God”, the book recounts the largely untold story of the lost boys and girls of Northern Ireland, and those who died south of the border, in Britain and as far afield as West Germany.

This is not the first account of children during the Troubles.Another book, by Laurel Holliday and published in 1999, was also called Children of the Troubles. It presented a powerful collection of young people’s memories of growing up in the midst of the violence.

They were the survivors and they had a story to tell, but Duffy and McClements’ book has greater potency, dealing as it does with the loss of lives that had barely begun.

Baby Bowen never had a chance. Her mother, Marian, was eight and a half months pregnant when she was killed on April 21, 1975. She died along with her brothers, Michael and Seamus McKenna after loyalist paramilitaries planted a bomb inside the front door of their newly-renovated home in Kyliss, Co Tyrone.

There were almost 300 deaths in 1976, the second highest of any year during the Troubles. This was the year in which the deaths of the three young Maguire children in Belfast prompted the formation of The Peace People, a cross-community movement in which women from both sides of the divide united in parches against the killers. Its founders, Mairéad Maguire and Betty Corrigan, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

The death of a child in any circumstances devastates the parent, but when that young life is taken in a cruel and hideous fashion, the pain can become unbearable. I remember visiting the family of a murdered teenage boy in Belfast in 1998 and being shown his bedroom.

Tommy had been killed by the Provos 21 years before but it was as if he had never left it. On the walls were posters of soccer stars; on the dressing table a pile of cassette tapes; in the wardrobe his favourite black leather jacket. It was a shrine that neither of his parents could even think of dismantling.

It reminded me of the aftermath of the loyalist attack on Seán Graham’s bookmakers on the Ormeau Road in Belfast in 1992 that claimed the lives of five innocent people, among them 15-year-old James Kennedy. His mother, Kathleen, retreated indoors afterwards, refusing to leave her home and refusing to eat more than a morsel.

Though a relatively young woman, she was dead within two years. As her husband, Jack, put it: “The bullets that killed James didn’t just travel in distance, they travelled in time. Some of those bullets never stop travelling.”

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