Lost Lives Reminds us we can’t Forget…

For Terry Maguire, a recent BBC programme, Lost Lives, featuring deaths in the Troubles, triggered a flashback on his way to work. This caused him to reflect on an incident he witnessed as a schoolboy in Derry in 1972, making him reassess his long-held view that the Troubles had no personal impact.

As I walked to work in darkness one morning in 2020, work tasks and concerns swirled unhelpfully in my half-awakened mind. When I reached the entrance of the still-fortified police station the metal gates creaked open and I glimpsed inside: a parked vehicle, headlights on, engine running, waiting to leave. From across the road, in the car park of a supermarket, an unseen dog began to bark: viscously, loudly, menacingly. I looked back at the waiting vehicle to see again that ghost. In the passenger seat a vague outline: pale, gaunt, bloody. I know it’s not there but fear binds me to the spot and I am forced to wait until the car emerges onto the road and speeds off.

I had triggered again that trauma. As the grippening fear lessens, I am transported back nearly fifty years and seventy miles. Back in Derry in 1972 it was a Sunday. The weather was fine so boarders in our small friendship groups “did the walks”. Confined to the College grounds, in our leisure time we walked anti-clockwise on the drive-way that bordered the large elliptical lawn fronting the main barrack-like school buildings. We walked away our free time, talking football and pop music and little else.

That Sunday afternoon our group of three arrived at the toilets on the corner of Senior House. Entering we noticed a group of older boys, not boarders, standing at a derelict structure known as the Windmill. Inside the toilets a man was loading a rifle in a cubicle so there was going to be shooting and, as 13-year-olds did, we needed a vantage point to watch.

Shooting incidents had been more frequent recently, especially since Bloody Sunday in January. We were living as school boarders on the periphery of Free Derry, the Bogside area without government service or law and order. It had been like this since the riots of 1969. We lived in a buffer between two forces but it had no effect on our lives. We lived as seminarians: went to classes, to study and then the rosary before going to bed to sleep and then get up early to go to mass. The Troubles, now at its zenith, seemed to have no impact on us.

The gunman, more senior than his comrades, exited the toilet-block with the rifle, barrel held skywards. He called to one in his group to go down the walks to Bishop Street. The boy, carrying a smaller rifle, perhaps a .22, ran from tree to tree then stopped at the wall onto Bishop Street across a small lawn at the back of the grounds-keeper’s house. He lay on the grass and furtively looked over the wall. We stood awkwardly behind the wrought-iron fire-escape at Senior House. The initial fork-lightening of excitement was now curtailed by a growing sense of menace and vulnerability and I was experiencing real fear. The gunman joined the others at the Windmill and waited on the scout.

It seemed to take forever but finally the scout returned and the armed group hurried down the walks followed by the three of us. They took up positions at the wall; the gun was aimed up Bishop Street. We waited. During the wait there was complete silence: three men at the wall and three behind trees. We edged over slowly and gently and surprisingly were ignored by the group, eventually arriving behind the gunman. We watched, as he did, up the empty street toward the junction of Abercorn Road.

Then suddenly, from the corner of Ferguson Street, a soldier on foot-patrol sprinted across Bishop Street while a second soldier took up position at the gable of a house. It was then the first shot was fired from the SLR. It was a powerful resounding bang. We could clearly see the bullet hit just above the soldier smashing the metal down-pipe. The soldier froze, unclear where fire was coming from. Then the second shot. This hit his head. There was a splash and he seemed to bounce off the wall. As he fell, he revealed a red and grey stain on the white wall.

Terrified yet exhilarated I felt both excitement and fear. There was silent indifference from the gunmen. They jumped up and ran off up the walks towards the Windmill. We moved away from the wall certain fire would be returned but it wasn’t.

There followed a lock down. We were corralled inside the assembly hall and when each was accounted for, we were told that the soldier had died. I felt nothing. Perhaps I already knew. I had seen the death: instantaneous, bloody, violent.

In the days that followed an Alsatian guard-dog came to live in a newly-erected compound in the lawn area leading to the wall. It barked aggressively and I developed a morbid and irrational fear of it. Then the nightmares started. They always started off the same: walking through a dark landscape with a sense of panic and foreboding, then I am chased by an angry large dog. When it catches up with me the dog is kept inches from my face, straining on a leash, barking, foaming at the mouth. The leash is held by a figure in green, blood running from his head down his gaunt face.

That nightmare, and variations of it, stayed with me for years. Then somehow it seemed to just disappear. Until this morning: the police station, the barking dog and an illusion of an ghostly figure. It all came back.

On Sunday 16th April 1972 Corporal Gerald Bristow, a 26 year-old married man with a 1 year old son, was killed by members of the Official IRA who fired from the grounds of St Columb’s College. In 1979 two men were found guilty of his murder (Source: Lost Lives)

brothers in arms” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY

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