IN 1972, a bullet from a rifle belonging to a man we have come to know as ‘Soldier F’ ripped through my 31-year-old uncle’s body and changed our family forever.
Patrick ‘the Skelper’ Doherty was shot in the back as he attempted to crawl to safety on the darkest day in Derry’s history. You can see the belt he wore on the day in a museum in the Bogside. A perfect semi-circle blasted through the leather. A perfect shot. The belt lay in my granny’s attic for years, precious evidence for a criminal court case that would never come.
My uncle Paddy’s last words were reportedly: “Don’t let me die on my own.” Which he did. Far from his six children, face down in the street, while another father of six, Bernard McGuigan, who waved a white handkerchief in an attempt to come to Paddy’s aid, was shot through the eye and killed on the spot.
This intolerable cruelty, this horrific violence, which happened 19 years before I was born, has cast a shadow over my life, moulded me in its image, and made me who I am today. It inspired me to pursue the truth for a living.
For as long as I can remember, Bloody Sunday and all that comes with it has been part of my life. My small hands gripped the white cross which held my uncle’s name in cold Januarys year on year when we marched the sloping hill from Creggan shops down to Free Derry Corner. Children at the front were there to remind the British government that there would be another generation after our parents who were going to fight them for the truth.
I remember busy mammies organising us in a row, trying to match the youngster to their murdered relative in order to ensure you were holding the right picture if you were in the second row, or cross if you were in the first.
I have never seen my murdered uncle’s face in the flesh, but his image is burned into my brain. I knew which portrait I had to carry without being told, even at six years old. Paddy was everywhere because Bloody Sunday was everywhere.
His handsome face is painted on the gable end of a block of flats, just metres from where he died. He looked at me from TV, from newspapers, and from framed pictures in relatives’ homes, along with the 13 other men and boys stolen from their families on the same day.
When some kind stranger you met later in life inquired who your family were or which street you came from, you always answered, “We’re a Bloody Sunday family”, and everyone knew what that meant. Derry’s most unlucky and tragic members-only club. I wasn’t even the only Bloody Sunday relative in my class at school, so wide was the reach of Derry’s aching open wound.
I was probably the only six-year-old who bounded into Ms McLaughlin’s class announcing Tony Blair had granted an inquiry into the murder of 14 unarmed civilians, though. All my marching in my pink Doc Martens had made a difference, I thought, but my marching days were far from done.
That haunted route is roughly a mile and, year after year, I, along with my aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and thousands of others would watch our warm breath in the cold air as we trudged in the hope of justice or truth or something like it.
The marches were a constant, as was the fight. The journalists would come every year and every year we’d be on our best behaviour. In the face of state-sponsored atrocity, victims are always expected to remain dignified, as though a polite demeanour would somehow alter the mindset moulded by hundreds of years of colonial supremacy.
The presence of those journalists and the knowledge that they could wield enough pressure to sway an establishment set me on my own path. If they could make a difference, then so would I.
When you’ve been raised to question everything you’re told by those who claim to represent you, working in journalism was a natural fit.
The families of those murdered on Bloody Sunday, like many of those who found themselves in the crosshairs of the British army at the time, were slandered in their afterlife: gunmen, provos, bombers, killers all, because, you see, when you’re a criminal you deserve it and that means the British army was fighting an urban war of someone else’s making. Not gunning down men, women, and children marching for the right to own a house, or hold a job without their religion taken into consideration.
The same slurs that haunted my uncle in his grave are the same that are thrown at me daily on social media from those who cannot and will not accept that what they attempted to bury on January 30, 1972, turned into seeds.
Those who abuse me in the course of my work use the same tactic. When a mirror is held up to the state, it’s easier to go after the person holding the mirror than admit you might have got it wrong in the first place. If I’m a “provo journalist”, “a shinner”, or a “rabid nationalist”, then I don’t matter and my view doesn’t count.
Far from choosing a life swallowed by the hatred of what the British government did to my uncle, my family, and my city, I am probably a model example of what a 'ceasefire baby' should be.
The horrors of war infected every facet of my life, from the estate I was brought up in to the fact I didn’t know a single Protestant child my own age until I was 16. I have, along with thousands of my peers, rejected the hate which infected the North for generations.
Hate is something that we in the North have a monopoly on. We have considered hate from every angle. We were creative in our hate and more creative in trying to rid ourselves of it now. I have considered at length whether I hate Soldier F. He who showed no remorse on the stand during the Saville inquiry, who shot defenceless men, who tore our family apart, who, under orders from on high, carried out actions which later facilitated the biggest recruitment campaign for the IRA my hometown has ever seen.
My grandfather was known to have cried about Bloody Sunday spontaneously, off and on, for years. My cousins grew up without a father and, in turn, lost whatever spark their mother had when she was widowed at 29. All at the hands of those who claim us as their citizens.
The opposite of love is indifference, apparently, but I’m not there yet either. I have mulled who he is, what his life is now with his grandchildren, and it gives me some solace that Soldier F might have briefly worried about facing criminal prosecution. I don’t believe he ever will.
If he had one sleepless night, it would be a fraction of the sleepless nights had across Derry in the decades since he crossed our streets with his rifle. So, not entirely indifferent, but I have chosen not to hate, as my uncle Paddy told his children before he was taken from them: “Hate eats at your heart.”