Death blast lessons

The lengthy excerpt below appeared as an article by Ciaran McKeown in the Irish Press on Monday 6th December 1971 entitled ‘Death blast lesson for the North’. McKeown wrote the piece in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of McGurk’s Bar on the preceding Saturday night, the 4th December, the fortieth anniversary of which falls this weekend. It is worth reading if only to reflect on the lessons which were not learned back in 1971.

I’ve retained the layout, including headings from the original and added two notes (and corrected a few spellings). The original can be viewed here (via paywall).

DEATH BLAST LESSON FOR THE NORTH

The tears of anguish that Saturday night’s tragedy wrung even from anonymous observers are nothing compared to the appalling grief of the bereaved. Their suffering is intangible, and words of shock, horror and sympathy are a distant consolation in their great loss.

The outrage will elicit from anyone with a trace of compassion condemnation beyond expression. But often the condemnation will come tinged with political qualifications and more often still it will be in holier-than-thou, what sort of animals could do such a thing kind of language. As if only the bombers are guilty in this society.

Saturday night showed a tragedy, deeper if possible, than the awful carnage buried under tons of rubble in a Belfast street. It showed a cancer in the Irish soul, or at least in the Northern soul, that is in such an inflamed state that unless it is cut out, it will ensure that this week’s multiple funerals will be followed by many, many more.

For when the fatal bomb exploded, people in the New Lodge Rd area cheered, assuming that the Provisionals had added to last week’s propaganda coup [1] by blasting some new target – a barracks, perhaps, with maybe a couple of soldiers dead, or some downtown store symbolising Stormont and British rule.

Party songs

As word quickly spread, the New Lodge Rd area was struck dumb, then galvanised into frantic rescue efforts. Meanwhile, the adjoining Protestant area of Tiger Bay in the Duncairn, realising that it was not another Provo triumph but a “Fenian” tragedy, came out to sing party songs and wave Ulster flags and Union Jacks.

Before long and in full view of the burning ruins of McGurk’s little over 200 yards away, a stone-and-bottle sectarian confrontation developed. People in vulnerable houses prepared to leave. The British army moved in between the rioters – members of the same battalion, the 1st Queen’s Lancashire, that was involved in crowd control and rescue attempts at McGurk’s.

As fear spread up Duncairn Gardens and the New Lodge Rd and their connecting streets, someone introduced the usual arbiter, the great scatterer of Belfast crowds. The people scattered to the echo of a Thompson gun, and a British soldier fell, seriously wounded in the head [2], and three policemen were taken away with more minor injuries. An ugly situation had been undone at the price of four wounded and deepened hatred.

Meanwhile, back at the blitzed pub, civilian rescuers were told to stand back. All the living and some of the dead had been got out, and the experts had concluded that no one still buried could have survived the fire, the smoke and the leaking gas, even if their injuries were not initially mortal.

Bitter

An army bulldozer went into action to clear rubble, lift beams and girders and make the search operation more efficient. The crowd of onlookers dropped back a little, and as engines whined, fell to discussing who had done it. It couldn’t have been the IRA …. it was the UVF to be sure, a car with a Union Jack had been seen earlier … some wee lad saw two men planting the bomb … somebody got the number of the car … there’ll be revenge for this … and so on.

As the death toll mounted, army Saracens stole quietly from Girdwood Barracks on the Antrim Road and a full-scale search of the New Lodge area commenced. Knights of Malta, who had been working feverishly with the soldiers and firemen at the death scene, had ambulances searched. Soldiers standing round at the blast area were bitter about the shooting of their colleagues, and one, when asked what he thought at the scene before him, remarked simply: “Tit for tat.”

In the space of a couple of hours at least 15 were dead, 17 injured, six of them seriously. No one can tell if out of the confusion will come a new compassion or a deeper hatred. And yesterday the statements, the accusations and the denials came pouring out. The bombing remains a mystery. One thing is certain: as long as we all hover between hope and despair and fail to find a solution for this war, then we share, to some degree, the guilt for the deaths of innocents.

[1] On the preceding Thursday Martin Meehan, Tony “Dutch” Doherty and Hugh McCann had escaped from Crumlin Road Jail.

[2] Major Jeremy Snow (35) of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers died from his wounds on the 8th December 1971 (see Sutton Index for 1971).

The Bombing

For completeness, the following is a brief account of the actual bombing, based on the newspaper coverage in the immediate aftermath (mainly the Irish Press, Irish Independent and Irish Times of the 6th December 1971). Details of the injuries are from reporting of the coroner’s inquiry (held in 1972) and of Robert Campbell’s arrest, from his trial in 1978.

Just before 8.45 pm on Saturday 4th December 1971, Robert James Campbell and two other men drove up Great Georges Street and stopped outside McGurk’s Bar. As one of the men placed and lit a bomb at the door, he was seen by eight year old Joseph McClory. The boy told a passer-by, Harry Davey, who then went to raise the alarm. While this was happening, inside the bar, James Reid was talking to the publican Patsy McGurk when another customer, Malachy McLaughlin, shouted “Someone has put a stink bomb in here.” At that moment, the bomb exploded, apparently killing two of those inside immediately. The force of the blast both ignited an underground gas-pipe and collapsed the whole building, trapping 30 people inside. As a result of the collapse, eight of those inside died from crush asphyxia and five others from burns and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The next morning, calls were made to Belfast newsrooms claiming the bomb had been the work of the Empire Loyalists. Most papers ran both the claim and Joseph McClory’s (and Harry Davey’s corroborating) eyewitness statements. But at the scene, officers briefed reporters that the bomb had gone off prematurely inside the bar while awaiting collection by the IRA. The Minister for Home Affairs, John Taylor is quoted in the Irish Independent of the 6th December 1971 as saying: “I would dismiss the idea that it was the Protestants. The role of the Provisional IRA, which has been criticised by the Official IRA, is to try and create sectarian bitterness and they already exploded several pubs on the Shankill Road and Ormeau Road.

Robert James Campbell was arrested for questioning about a shooting in 1976, but also confessed to his membership of the UVF and role in the McGurks Bar bombing. Despite a public campaign by the victims’ families, they have yet to receive an explanation of the investigative failures in the light of the scale of the loss of life.

Whilst improvised explosive devices (as they are now known) were being deployed from 1966 onwards, up to the McGurks Bar bomb the pattern of conflict hadn’t been vastly different to previous violence, such as in 1918-23, when most of the injured and dead were killed by gunfire, or, very rarely hand grenades or land mines. Even internment had been a recurring feature of the state response, practically every decade since partition. Whilst Bloody Sunday is often regarded as a pivotal moment in recent political history, McGurks, and the official response, marked a more significant departure from the established pattern of violence of 1968-1971 and earlier episodes. From a historical perspective, the events surrounding the McGurk’s Bar bombing appear to represent a change in the pattern that, in retrospect, as in Ciaran McKeown’s piece, signposts the horrors of the following decades.

Further accounts and other information are available on a website run by the victims’ families who are to unveil a new memorial at the former location of the bar on the junction of North Queen Street and Great Georges Street this weekend.

You can check out more here… or view my history blog here