The day, the date, the unfolding news, seared on many memories. A shameful and seismic moment in our history. For younger people looking at these events, it might be interesting to know how this event was viewed by the Protestant community, and why.
By the end of January 1972 there had been about 200 deaths and numerous explosions, so the NI public were getting used to death on a large scale. The average Protestant, I believe, did not really understand the root causes of the conflict. I know I didn’t. For many of them, their understanding was that once the IRA became involved they were simply determined to bomb NI into a United Ireland and shooting and killing was their modus operandum. In the middle of a conflict it is impossible to see a wider picture. For example, we understand now the massive impact that Bloody Sunday had on IRA recruitment. But not then. Protestant reaction, as I recall, was simply “They’ve been pushing and pushing, the march was banned, so they got what they deserved.” They believed the subsequent lies of the army and the government.
There were many people in the Protestant community who held shocking sectarian views back then. Some still do. But there were many who did not. In her excellent book, Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People, Susan McKay recounts the story of a Protestant woman from Derry who remembers being at school and hearing children chanting “We shot one, we shot two, we shot thirteen more than you.” Yet years later when she started meeting Catholic women and listening to them talking about their experiences she realised that “these women were not bad, that it wasn’t true what we’d grown up hearing, that Catholics who complained or got shot were all in the IRA.” Back then too many people had grown up hearing those lies. With the passage of time and better understanding, I think many people have changed their views since then. But it is clear to see how the poisoned minds of school children like those played their part in prolonging the troubles for another 25 years.
As a young student at Coleraine in 1972 (NUU as it was then), there was talk about organising a coach to attend the funerals. I can remember at least one lecturer saying “Well we haven’t gone to any of the other (Protestant) funerals, why should we go to this one.” So even among the most intelligent, there was this sort of view “So what, they’re doing the same to us.” Yes, people had become hardened and embittered back in those awful times. As someone who was interested in politics, I can remember my initial reaction to the news. I just knew that something badly wrong had happened. I couldn’t see how thirteen people could end up dead simply by attending a march, regardless of whether it was legal or not. Back in those days people just reacted to stuff as it happened. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it all.
This February 2nd I will be reflecting on that day 50 years ago, when I stood with the thousands of mourners outside St Mary’s Church in the Creggan. A day which should never have come to pass.
Retired at last and living in Carrickfergus. Interests include sport, politics and popular culture.