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.

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  • Thanks, John, as I don’t think I’ve come across that McKeown piece before. I’ll post times and details of the events we have planned over the weekend.
    Kind regards,
    C

  • “It is worth reading if only to reflect on the lessons which were not learned back in 1971.”

    Just a brief comment and link, John. The lessons haven’t been learned from much earlier than that; the names and some of the weapons may have changed during the intervening generations.

  • Every best wish in your search for truth, Ciarán. Truth is so elusive and those who go in search of it can expect be misrepresented and maligned.

    You’ve had some support in your searching but, sadly, many folks have gone to the grave, none the wiser.

  • Was reflecting on this a few days ago. This was actually a central point in a kind of arc of discovery.
    Ignoring summer of 1970 as a kind of prelude rather than the real thing, there were some events over a short period of time which influenced my life and I dont particuarly like to re-visit how I thought or how I spoke or how I acted in response to any single event.
    Suffice to say that at the end of it all, I was a very different person than I was at the start.

    Aug 71. Internment. I lived in Upper Springfield Road area.
    Dec 71 McGurks
    Jan 1972 Bloody Sunday
    Jul 72 Claudy
    July 1972 Bloody Friday

    From my own perspective I dont want to think of any of those events individually as it is too uncomfortable to be reminded of the person I was………Im really much more at ease with the person I am.
    I can fully understand that any one of these events are traumatic enough to have had a lasting effect (not necessarily the same effect) on individuals who were at the heart of these events.
    But taking them in isolation doesnt work for me…….personally…..as necessarily it excludes the others.

  • John Ó Néill

    Nevin – here’s a great read for Christmas (if you can find it): Religion Politics and Violence in 19th-Century Belfast: The Pound and Sandy Row by Catherine Hirst (published about 10 years ago). Very well written and balanced – tries to understand why rather than judge.

  • Thanks, John. Maybe I’ll drop a hint in the appropriate ears.

    If I could coin a phrase, “All history is local”. If only ‘outsiders’ would take the trouble to ask about the ‘lie of the land’ instead of wading in with big boots on they might have less need to ‘lie through their teeth’ later.

  • andnowwhat

    @FJH

    Indeed. There’s a lot of things hidden in those of us from that period. Some things one can put a finger on but there is much, much more. Some times things happen (a few recently as it happens) and my mind reverts to something it was 30 years ago, or so.

    I used to go out with a clinical psychologist some years back and she would comment on certain things my (west Belfast) friends would say and how off they are.

    At the time (10 years ago, it would be now) she was in the media a bit regarding a certain very famous prolonged situation. We would have rows about it because (being from the south) she could not grasp what happened here and the context in which that event happened.

  • John,
    Just posted details of the event http://ciaranmacairt.com/mcgurks-bar-40th-anniversary-commemoration/
    Nevin, thanks very much 😉
    FJH, I think you’re right about that arc and I examine this in the book we are publishing in February. Internment is the key 😉

  • Mike the First

    John

    “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.”

    Without meaning for one moment to take away from the horror of the McGurk’s atrocity, can I ask what you mean by the bombing marking a significant departure from the established pattern of violence?

    The atrocity was one of a series of sectarian bombings of pubs (and other locations such as shopping areas) carried out by the UVF and IRA from around September 1971 (indeed Ciarán mentions internment which would tie in with this timescale).

    I’ll also echo Nevin’s sentiments to Ciarán in his 3.07.

  • Professor Yattle

    While nobody should wish to undermine the bereaved from any atrocity, I question if Ciarán MacAirt really counts as bereaved when the McGurk’s bombing took place years before he was born.
    That fact, combined with his grandiose conspiracy theories, smacks of rather sad attention seeking.

  • Drumlins Rock

    I always imagined I had grown up during the troubles, being born in the mid 70’s I can remember terrible events of the mid eighties, and had developed a picture in my mind that “the Troubles” had occasionally flare ups but generally were at the same constant level of attack and counter attack. It is really only through Slugger discussions and the like I have come to realise just how crazy late 1971 and 1972 were, almost camparable to the whole of the 80’s troubles in just over a year, for although the individual events were often repeated the intensity never was.
    “Spiraling out of control” is often used to describe that period, and it certainly looked like no-body was really in control or had any real plan on either side, but what finally struck me was society actually survived at all during those events. Some areas did “collaspe” but civil war then or since did not ensue, which would have happened in many other nations, to come through that period and the decades since with both communities still substancially as they were demographically etc is nothing short of miraculous.

  • John Ó Néill

    @Mike The First – going back as far as the violence 1920-22, there were numerous incidents where hand grenades were thrown at civilians (e.g. onto trams or into residential districts) and caused multiple injuries. Even in 1971, as bombings became more common, injuries (and, as significantly, fatalities) had not approached the scale of McGurks. Not that, somehow, one or two deaths is in any way acceptable – but that the relative scale of loss of life was comparable to those arising from gun battles and shootings.
    Where large numbers of people had died in a short period of time (e.g. following 9th August 1971) it was during a series of incidents (albeit that they were interlinked) rather than one single event.
    The significance (in that sense) is that the scale of loss of life didn’t have a greater political impact (in terms of exploring the possibilty of a non-violent solution). The way that it was dealt with by the security forces and political leadership – to try and present it as an IRA own goal and ignore the eye-witness and other evidence that was immediately available – was incredible.

  • Mr MacAirt………..I should perhaps explain the arc theory.
    Internment is not necessarily the key or the beginning….I think it was for me…..Divis Street 1969 was very near me..but as I had moved to Upper Sprigfield in early 1970 St Mathews/Ardoyne & The Falls Curfew were safely out of view.
    Arguably the killing of Gunner Robert Curtis is a starting point for some but again out of any direct impact on me.
    Like I say I dont want to reflect too much on immature feelings that I would have had in the Phoney War period (as I have called it elsewhere) before Internment.

    But the nature of the “arc” is that it necessarily means different feelings at different parts of the arc.
    As a resident of Greater Ballymurphy, I had an unwanted view of the events called the Ballymurphy Massacre at Internment time. I …..I emphasise that I mean .I…….dont need an Inquiry to tell me what happened.
    That led me to think say and do certain things.
    Likewise the tragedy with which you are concerned directly.
    Listening to the lies I heard and the evidence of people just like me……yes that leads to thinking, saying and doing things.
    And Bloody Sunday the same.
    And Claudy that first hint where I was perhaps thinking, saying and doing things that were different.
    And Bloody Friday……….a further change.

    Not sure if “arc” realy covers it as much as “journey”…………..and maybe if it doesnt sound flippant “carousel” because theres a sense of jumping on a merry go round in August 1971 and jumping off it a year later.
    And I think thats a familiar story.

    That people jump on and off at different points. And some stayed on that notso merrygoround for years. Or jumped on for another go in 1981 with the Hunger Strikes. Cleraly too many people stayed on those carousels too long …..right up to 1998……..and beyond.

    There were other carousels sited in other parts of Norn Iron with different customers.
    But in one way or another……and many would deny it we were all on board a carousel.
    Obviously a degree of personal or family involvement concentrates the mind on one event.
    But for me I can only see it in a totality.

  • FJH,
    Ciarán, please, sir!
    I think John has it nailed as he is talking about the patterning of repression, violence, Internment, paramilitarism, pogrom – which came first and was perpetrated by whom is for bloggers here to decide – we can’t rely on historians ;). John will correct me if I’m wrong, but the thrust of his post was that we must attend to these lessons of the past or play out the same mistakes again and again. Your carousels is an apt analogy and point taken about how others may perceive their own starting point.
    Internment in the most recent phase of conflict is pivotal. I also believe (and I examine it more thoroughly in my book that I am releasing in February) that the reason the authorities released a stream of black propaganda that criminalized innocent civilians in McGurk’s Bar was because if the authorities admitted it was a Loyalist attack (which we have proved they knew it was), they would have to arrest Protestants. This Policy for Protestants (http://www.themcgurksbarmassacre.com/images/arrest_policy_protestants.pdf) is now in the public domain although it would have been of greater use to the Government of the Republic of Ireland when it took Britain to the European courts at this very time.
    Rather than “grandiose conspiracy theories”, though, as the goodly Professor Yattle records, we trace all these documents through the authorities’ own archives (http://www.themcgurksbarmassacre.com/research.html). I’ll be releasing previously unpublished files that I have been retaining for the book in February. “Sad attention seeking”, indeed, Professor Yattle.

  • John Ó Néill

    “John will correct me if I’m wrong, but the thrust of his post was that we must attend to these lessons of the past or play out the same mistakes again and again.”

    Pretty much, although partly my point is also, as DR points out above, those of us born in the 1970s need to appreciate how events unfolded rather than simply merging events together (if we are to gain any sort of meaningful perspective on it). That means making a bit of an effort to get to the detail.
    Hence, my argument that, when then viewed in both an immediate and long-term historical context (what French Annaliste historians might describe as an évènement and the moyen durée), the official response on the night of the 4th and during the day of the 5th December effectively, and dramatically, re-set the parameters of what would be tolerated as an ‘acceptable level of violence’ (to quote that awful phrase). And I’m not saying that it somehow provides mitigating cover for anything that happened afterwards. But it is impossible to view subsequent events outside of their context. From a nationalist perspective you might place McGurks as a point on an arc from internment to Bloody Sunday (and Widgery) or with reference to a Kitson strategy.

    As to Professor Yattle – as per various links above, Ciarán has place significant amounts of detail on the web regarding what you call his grandiose theories, please feel free to offer your actual critique of them and play the ball here.