A connection between Claudy and Atlantic City may seem somewhat incongruous. As author Felicity Hayes-McCoy suggests in writing about memory, history and remembrance: “layers of emotion, inclination and unconscious prejudice intervene when looking back.”
Atlantic City, NJ was a tacky and rundown place in 1972. Gambling had just been approved by the New Jersey legislature but the casinos had not yet opened. With the Godfather still showing in cinemas, there was chat locally that the Mafia was on their way. Davy Jones, once of ‘the Monkees’ fame, was the headline attraction in a seasonal theatre. Now more boardwalk than Broadway.
For the J-1 visa students who had flown to JFK, prior to taking a bus to Atlantic City, Wildwood or Virginia Beach, Nathans Frankfurters, Planter’s Peanuts, Salt Water Taffy, Mac Donald’s as opposed to Wimpy and the availability of 52 flavours of Ice Cream or Frozen Yoghurt was a new world. Like the New Yorkers who came to the shore in June, July and August it became a way of life as Irish students on their day off blended into the crowds in Penn State t-shirts, sunglasses and cut-offs.
The bombs and violence of Belfast and other places at home were a long way away; but not quite.
It was an age without email, Facebook, zoom, messenger or mobile phones. Communication was by Airmail and a requirement for keeping family informed. It worked both ways.
1972 was a violent year. Derry had witnessed its share. The family business had seen business interrupted on numerous occasions as a result of bombings and street violence. Shattered windows had been replaced regularly. They were now shuttered nightly to limit the necessity of removing broken glass from merchandise.
Newspapers and the television were peppered with news of incendiaries, deaths and injury; in the city and elsewhere.
The events of Bloody Sunday in January had occurred on a weekend when I was home from university. I left in the afternoon so did not hear of the killings until I went to the television room in Halls to hear the news which led with the report of protesters killed by the Parachute regiment. Disturbed by the cheers of some of the watchers, I left the room before the end. Welcoming the death of someone’s family member jarred. Many years later, a nationalist friend shared a similar experience in the Student’s Union at QUB when the news of the shooting of Edgar Graham was reported.
It seemed that we lived in a society where you were either for or against as combatants, to deploy the sanitised terminology of today, went to war
I could tell from the letter which I received from home in August that my father had that same feeling of a drift backward into a deepening spiral of violence, already marked by sectarian and political killings, economic disruption, a deficit in political leadership and a community now shaped afresh by the movement and re-settlement of people into areas where they felt more trusting of neighbours.
In the case of Derry, the proportion of Unionists on the city side of the river Foyle had reduced significantly following attacks on school children, the murder of business men, uniformed men and women and civilians associated with the security forces and the intimidation of individuals in their homes and workplaces. Falling school rolls and church attendance pointed to the unfolding demographic geography.
It was clear from the letter that watching the aftermath of Bloody Friday in Belfast on television served to disturb; that in the midst of the community there were those, whose devotion to a sacred cause could render them immune to the costs of their strategy. Writing of events at Claudy, he shared the anguish of our family doctor distraught at the loss of a young relative whose life was deemed expendable in the minds of those who placed the bombs
Never active in party politics, he stood apart from social constructs and narratives which sought to legitimate social or physical violence or obliterate, too easily, the human suffering that might run counter to the moral fragility of unquestioning allegiance to political agendas.
Written by a man whose friendships bridged social and religious divides, whose non-conformist Christian faith and integrity shaped a desire for equality and justice, his words reflected despair rather than condemnation; a disturbing abnormality in the value system owing much to the cult of the warrior and the misguided romance of the poet’s rebellion.
The First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill MLA now tells is, there was no alternative.
The obvious implication is that the victims of the violence she justifies were responsible for their own victimhood.
It is the same insensitivity that those who cheered in the TV room in 1972 displayed:
‘If they had not defied the ban to protest, they would not have been shot.’
They now know better following the statement of then Prime Minister, Rt Hon David Cameron MP in 2010 when he apologised for the ‘unjustified and unjustifiable deaths.
On a day of heightened emotions, as I listened on the walls overlooking Guildhall Square, a sense of responsibility being admitted mixed with shame at the years of unethical denial. Since that time, some of the families affected continue with a campaign for justice but at least all know the truth.
Whilst there has not been enough disclosure by governments what there has been remains unmatched by others.
Alongside many other examples, the families of Bloody Friday and Claudy continue to be denied the detail of who and why; why the apparent collusion between Government and Church to prevent disclosure?
What message did this send to perpetrators about expedient decision-making and a willingness to marginalise the innocent through the containment of the truth?
Watching recent commemorations, it becomes clear that our past is strewn like an unreconstructed jigsaw without any assurance that the pieces will ever fit together to provide truth which in the case of Michelle O’Neill presents as an indulgent and singularly republican narrative; disturbingly eulogised by a fresh generation at festivals and sporting events.
It is not a good place to be.
No less so than cheering students in a TV room, in a student’s Union at QUB or for that matter, in an Orange Hall.
We may laud an imperfect peace but part of us has not travelled far since 1972 in terms of reconciliation, truth or parity of esteem.
When traveling back from the USA in 1972, I brought with me some books by James Baldwin, author and Civil Rights activist who, with others, achieved change and addressed past grievances long experienced by Black Americans, through non-violence.
The strategy was soon abandoned here; sacrificed to the agenda of pseudo-revolutionaries and the refreshed business of 1916.
His view that: “not everything that is faced can be challenged but nothing can be challenged unless it is faced” continues to carry meaning.
Seeking to cling to the narrative that there was no alternative to ‘war’ merely evidences a deficit in the political leadership necessary to face the challenge of moving beyond that same corruption of memory that allows individuals to deny membership of the IRA, details of child abuse, the ‘Disappeared’ and numerous bombings, botched and otherwise.
It appears that, to judge from what Michelle O’Neill has to say in 2022, it has not gone away.
The jigsaw may never be completed as republican politics continues to be built on the graves of the expendable.
Truth awaits the de-commissioning of a Sinn Féin culture of fact manipulation and the crescendo of silence offered to victims.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.