Eamonn McCann recently attended the launch of the book, Children of the Troubles. The thought occurred, what was it all about?
Strabane teenager Charles Love was killed in the Bogside in Derry on January 28, 1990. His death is included in Freya McClements´ and Joe Duffy’s Children of the Troubles. The book lists the 186 children, ages ranging from new-born to 16 years, who were shot or crushed to death under military vehicles or blown to bits by one or other of the armies which spilled blood in the service of their various causes over 30 pitiless years.
You have to read the book a bit at a time. Begin with an intention of turning pages for an hour or two or three and you’ll pause and then pause again before putting it away for tomorrow. Children of the Troubles would take tears from a stone.
I went to the Derry launch in the ornate splendour of the Guildhall. The main hall was packed with politicians, journalists, local worthies and, most of all, parents, children, brothers, sisters of girls and boys memorialised by Freya and Joe. A long line queued at a table to the front of the stage to have copies inscribed by the authors. What most of them said, one after the other, was, “Thank you.”
On my way out, I chanced on a friend who’d spent years in Long Kesh for his actions on behalf of one of the armed Republican groups, feeling a twinge of unease as we fell into step. What to say? Ask him if he felt – what? Regret? Guilt? Belief in spite of all in the righteousness of the cause which, with others, had begotten this atrocious killing of children?
“Makes you wonder what the fuck it was all about,” he volunteered. “You know what I mean.”
Which I did, sort of. I’ve heard the sentiment repeatedly from former combatants, as the phrase goes, who typically have had their own share of grief and loss as well as roles, big or small, in the infliction of pain. A huge majority, dissenters from the line of Mr Adams and other commanders, are not hankering after a resumption of war but are bitter at what they now see as its futility. What the fuck was it all about?
What was the killing of Charles Love about? At the moment it happened, I was standing on a platform at Free Derry Wall waiting to speak to a crowd, perhaps 5,000 strong, gathered at the end of the Bloody Sunday commemoration march. Suddenly, we heard the crack and crump of the bomb, then watched in frozen awe as the chunk of brick which was to crumple his life arced, slowly it seemed, in parabolic trajectory from the city walls high above us to the spot on Rossville Street alongside Glenfada Park where he had been standing with a gang of his pals watching the march go by.
The march always follows ‘the original route,’ winding down from the Creggan Estate to Rossville Street. Charles Love died on the killing ground of Bloody Sunday, where, within a radius of 50 yards, Hugh Gilmore (17), Michael Kelly (17), John Young (17), Michael McDaid (17), Gerald Donaghy (17), and eight others who had made it out of their teens, were murdered by paratroopers on January 30, 1972.
My former partner the late Mary Holland described the scene in the Irish Times;
The bomb that killed 16-year-old Charles Love in Derry last Sunday exploded at 4:15 pm. There were sharp light showers in the city that afternoon and, when the ambulance had taken the dying boy to Altnagelvin hospital, those who had crowded round him stood looking at his blood mixing with the falling rain on the ground. At about a quarter to five, two middle-aged men came from one of the houses nearby carrying a bucket of warm water and a stiff garden broom. They swept the pavement clean, Charles Love’s life-blood lapping with the water in the gutter and slipping gently down a drain in the road.”
What had that been all about? Why would anyone plant a bomb on the Walls timed to explode at the time when, predictably, thousands of marchers would be gathered in the Bogside below?
The strategy of mobilising masses of people to bring about political change in the North always ran counter to the tactic of ‘armed struggle.’ If the people themselves could bring about change, wherein lay the necessity of armed action?
Armed struggle belittles the role of the people in their own liberation.
In the midst of mass liveliness or riot in the early days of the Troubles a call would ring out, “Clear the streets!” telling that the Provos or the Stickies or the INLA or whoever were about to open up.
I do not believe it a coincidence that the bomb which killed Charles Love exploded as thousands gathered in the heart of the Bogside. March all you like, was the message, it’s us, the army of the people, who will hand you down freedom.
I went off for a drink in Mailey’s with my mate Paddy Logue after the street had been cleansed of blood. “What were they thinking to do a thing like that,” I wondered.
“That,” said Paddy, “was attention-seeking behaviour.”
That’s the reason Charles Love died. None of the other child victims whose short lives are lit up in Freya and Joe’s book died for any better reason.
What the fuck was it all about?