There was a terrible silence in Omagh in the days after the bombing. It seemed that not even birdsong could be heard in a town that was full of life and joy and laughter when the world turned upside down on 15 August 1998. To those who know nothing of Northern Ireland it may seem distasteful to engage in the arithmetic of tragedy, but the difference with Omagh was that the casualties were about evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants. The major atrocities in the North have tended to affect mainly one side or the other: the Shankill bomb, Greysteel, Darkley, Loughinisland, are examples.
Cross-community loss brought a cross-community response and Trimble’s [Unionist leader David Trimble] people, for example, were amazed at the number of ordinary members of the public, both Catholic and Protestant, who told them wherever they went, “Keep it going, don’t stop.” Trimble attended two Catholic and two Protestant funerals. In a normal society, to note such an occurrence would seem bizarre and uncalled-for but in a deeply divided community that kind of balance was important.
Sinn Féin had averted a considerable amount of odium by its relatively early condemnation of the Omagh atrocity, and even some unionists had privately acknowledged this. However, there was a note of gloom in the main commentary piece in the Sinn Féin weekly, An Phoblacht. Referring to the Real IRA bombers only as “the splinter group,” the anonymous author summed up the political after-effects: “Repression has moved to the top of the political agenda; the sterile decommissioning argument has been revived; the name of Irish republicanism has been sullied.”
Exactly a week after the bomb a huge crowd, including many prominent politicians, gathered outside the Omagh courthouse for a ceremony of remembrance. At the other end of the long street, the bomb-site was a mass of flowers. Omagh was the flower capital of the world that day. People picked their way through the bundles to read the heartfelt messages. Some of the bunches were arrayed behind proper flower-shop cellophane; others were clumsily gathered into humble plastic bags, but each spoke the same message of heartbreak. “Wishing their absence was only a dream,” said one. Another: “We weep for the innocents and the loss of our childrens’ innocence. Signed: An Omagh Family.” There were scores and scores of teddy bears: soft and cuddly, they were the kind teenage girls might give one another on their birthdays, along with a present and a funny card.
Sadly, the teenagers and other innocents who lost their lives in Omagh would have no more birthdays. No more for them that magic day every year when friends rejoiced and parents took pleasure and pride to see their youngster blossom and grow. Instead, there would be only one black date, August 15, and it would forever be mired in sorrow and sadness.
But if there was despair, there was also hope and uplift, notably in the song, “Broken Things,” so hauntingly rendered by local singer Juliet Turner, who accompanied herself on the guitar. Written by the American folksinger Julie Miller, it was said to be inspired by the Biblical message that the Lord is close to the broken-hearted and crushed in spirit:
You can have my heart if you don’t mind broken things;
You can have my life if you don’t mind these tears;
Well, I heard that you make old things new
So I give these pieces all to you
If you want it you can have my heart.
The singer’s voice almost broke at one point, but her wonderful performance was the emotional high point of the day. People shed tears who had been crying all week and thought no more tears could come. One was used to seeing politicians putting on an act, but even they could not be accused of fakery on a day of such deep and intense feeling. [Prime Minister] Bertie Ahern’s face was contorted with grief; [Minister] Liz O’Donnell wept freely; others such as President McAleese, [SDLP leader] John Hume and former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald were obviously very moved. Everyone, from church leaders and dignitaries to political figures as diverse as John Prescott, Peter Lilley, David Trimble, Seamus Mallon and Gerry Adams, had come to show their solidarity with the people of Omagh.
Father Kevin Mullan, eloquent as a prophet, summed up people’s feelings best. “At this hour last Saturday,” he said, “twenty-eight good and deeply-loved people, one carrying twins awaiting birth, were alive in these streets. Each of them, each of us, at this hour last Saturday had a future for some time on this Earth. But the future had already been brought among us. Evil had already possessed some human hearts and minds to do evil unto other human beings. At ten minutes past three the future came. Death and life were blasted together. Death carried life and peace away. It searched for many more of us with its savage scorching breath. Its bloody greed was fought in the street and the hospital by those who love and treasure life and dearly loved the lives for whom they fought.”
The mass outpouring of grief was reminiscent of the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, but now the two sides of the historic conflict were united in grief.
There was no wailing or beating of breasts, but the depth of feeling could be gauged from the fact that several people collapsed under the weight of grief and had to receive emergency attention.
Afterwards, as the estimated 40,000 crowd dispersed, people lingered to read messages and look at the wreaths outside business premises down the street: killing shop assistants seemed a long way from the vision of Wolfe Tone. The public grieving was coming to an end; for many the private sorrow would last forever. Yet as families made their way home, some stopped to let their kids take a turn on the slides and swings in a local park, and the silence of the afternoon was broken by peals of childish laughter. Even in grief-stricken Omagh, life went on. ♦