The bombing of McGurk’s Bar and the loss of innocence…

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I meant to get this up on Slugger last week, but since I was out on the hoof from Tuesday to Thursday I never quite found the time to get to it. It’s a video pulled together from interviews conducted by Northern Visions of family members of the victims of the bomb at McGurk’s bar in New Lodge.

There’s barely any politics in the first part, although it does give a flavour of the times with some fragmentary details of decency in the midst of great and overwhelming tragedy at the time. You also get a sense of how far the state had set itself against the nationalist community, and just how little they knew them.

In the second part, you get much more of a political reading. Ciaran MacAirt recounts some of the initial lines of official enquiry, that erroneously report members of his family as being members of the IRA. Certainly there was a gun battle that night, and one soldier must be counted as a victim of the tragic circumstances that night.

But as Malachi O’Doherty unflinchingly reports in his great book, The Telling Year, some of the stories that went round for months after bore little or no resemblance to the truth of the bombing:

McGurk’s was a family bar. Philomena, the mother, and 14 year-old Maria, who lived there, would be among the dead. The final toll was 15 dead from the explosion and one soldier shot dead. Of the dead in the bar, eight suffocated in the rubble. Initially we believed that the bomb had exploded inside the bar. Jim himself later told me that an IRA man was punished for not collecting the bomb.

That was what the gossip said. Terrorism experts later wrote that the IRA had been training others in the construction of a bomb when it had gone off. That explained, they said, the clustering of bodies inside the bar; they had all been leaning over the gelignite to see how it was detonated.

That was an image that fitted in with the smug officer class assumption that the Irish were stupid.

Malachi goes on to report just how quickly the press turned its back on McGurk’s, the family, the victims, the wider community all somehow condemned in the public minds as complicit in their own ends. The videos are most telling in the detailed small shifts of attitude amongst the soldiers when they discovered just who the families were.

Paddy McGurk and his family were just one of many hundreds of innocent victims of the Troubles. But there are few instances when the victims themselves were so roundly, and unjustly, blamed for their own demise. The bomb was a UVF bomb, and left carelessly outside the bar by team whose original mission had failed.

As Malachi notes the words of a former loyalist friend, “You know, a lot sectarianism is just laziness; people weren’t ordered to kill random Catholics would do it because it was easier.”

You can pick up Ciaran MacAirt’s account of the bombing at the Slugger Bookshop

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