By Jack Holland
The 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday last week reminded me that this year will see a lot of grim 30-year anniversaries linked to the Northern Ireland Troubles. The simple reason is that 1972 was the grimmest, bloodiest year in the whole conflict.
The 14 Bloody Sunday fatalities were among 496 people killed that year. (The statistics come from “Lost Lives,” by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton, the most reliable collection of data about the deaths from the conflict.)
The anniversaries of some of the events which claimed their lives include, as well as Bloody Sunday, the Aldershot bombing (Feb. 22), the Donegal Street bombing (March 20), the Anderson Street incident (May 28), the Ballymurphy shootings (July 9), Bloody Friday (July 21), the Clady massacre (July 31), the Newry customs station explosion (Aug. 22), and the Top of the Hill Pub shootings (Dec. 20).
In the first incident, seven people died after the Official IRA bombed the headquarters of the parachute regiment, in Aldershot, England. One was a Catholic priest, the regimental chaplain, five were women cleaners, and another victim was the base’s gardener. At first, the OIRA boasted that 12 officers had died. This was quickly shown to be false. Ironically, the man who drove the bomb to the target was a former para. The Officials said at the time that the attack was in direct retaliation for the Bloody Sunday shootings.
In the Donegal Street bombing a month later, seven people died. A 200-pound Provisional IRA car bomb exploded after contradictory warnings were given. Two of those who died were police officers trying to clear the street, three were refuse collectors (bin men, as they were known in Belfast), and two were old age pensioners, one aged 65, the other 79.
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The slaughter in Anderson Street in the Short Strand area of East Belfast claimed eight lives thanks to a Provisional IRA bomb which exploded in transit. The street was narrow, and the bomb demolished several of the tiny working-class houses. Among the dead were four PIRA members, two women, and two men. At the time the Provisionals tried to blame it on “undercover” soldiers and loyalists, but they soon admitted their responsibility. The Anderson Street mishap was one of several similar Provisional IRA mistakes which costs dozens of people their lives throughout the year.
British army snipers killed five people on July 9 during heavy firing in confused circumstances shortly after the breakdown of an IRA cease-fire. The soldiers picked them off from a lumber yard. Among the dead were a Catholic priest and a 13-year-old girl. Though the soldiers claimed they were returning fire, locals denied this, and accused the army of deliberate murder.
Twelve days later came Bloody Friday.
The whole month of July 1972 was a series of horrors, with 96 murders, making it the worst month of the worst year in the history of the Troubles. The Provisional IRA was responsible for some of the more gruesome incidents, including Bloody Friday. Twenty bombs exploded in Belfast in just over an hour, overwhelming the emergency services, which failed to clear some endangered areas in time. As a result, nine people died, including a 14-year-old boy. Among the Provisionals’ targets were a bus station and a row of shops. All the fatalities occurred at these two locations.
The next day, the UDA kidnapped and murdered Rosemary McCartney and Patrick O’Neill, two popular folksingers, in revenge for the bombings.
The Provisionals at first blamed their enemies for the massacre, saying that warnings were provided on which the authorities did not act. This became their standard excuse, year after year, atrocity after atrocity. But the fact that it did not discourage the Provisional IRA from continuing to plant bombs in crowded areas showed either they did not believe their own excuses or else that they were capable of a staggering cynicism. In later years, Provisionals and former Provisionals such as Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes have made statements accepting the fact that it was the IRA that was ultimately to blame for the loss of life.
July ended with another horror. On the 31st, three car bombs went off in the quiet little village of Claudy in County Derry, killing nine people, among them a 9-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy. Until that time Claudy’s main connection to the Troubles was the fact that the Burntollet civil rights marchers rested there in January 1969 on their way to Derry from Belfast. To this day the Provisional IRA have not acknowledged their responsibility for the Claudy crime. However, local people are able to name some of those involved — all them were active IRA members at the time.
The grim summer of 1972 came to end with another Provisional IRA mishap. A 50-pound bomb exploded in a customs clearing station near the border south of Newry on Aug. 22, killing nine people, including three members of the Provisionals’ bombing team. (One of those who died in the blast was Oliver Rowntree, the Provisionals’ O/C in Newry. According to “Lost Lives,” his twin brother, Colman, who was a member of the Official IRA, was shot dead by British soldiers two years later.)
The blood-stained year came to a close with the first mass shooting attack on a pub. It happened on Dec. 20, when UDA gunmen raked the Top of the Hill Pub in Derry’s Waterside district, murdering five people.
Of all the atrocities just listed for 1972, the only one which remains in the public eye is Bloody Sunday, whose 14 victims have been the subject of immense interest and attention over the years. To nearly all but the relatives of the victims of the other incidents, the awful memories of what happened have faded and passed from public consciousness. There is little or no public indignation to inspire demands for inquiries. The emotionally and physically wounded, the grieving relatives and loved ones of the victims have been left to get on with their lives, nursing their sorrow without benefit of public concern or even interest.
There were many other victims, too, who died that year in less spectacular horrors than those described here. The soldier hit by a sniper’s bullet, the Catholic randomly picked up, tortured and killed, his body dumped among the rubbish of a vacant lot or back alleyway, their lives were mostly ended without consequence to anyone other than those who loved them.