Bear­ing wit­ness to ter­ri­ble truths

Jour­nal­ists were wit­ness to ev­ery­thing from the shov­el­ling up of body parts to soldiers be­ing shot be­fore their eyes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - RAY­MOND SN­ODDY


Do we re­ally need an­other book about the Trou­bles af­ter all these years when the sto­ries of ev­ery­one who died was told in metic­u­lous de­tail in the mil­lion-word tome Lost Lives? Mer­ci­fully for those in this is­land the car­a­van of vi­o­lence has long since moved on and taken on ever more hor­ren­dous char­ac­ter­is­tics. Now it re­sides ev­ery­where from Syria to Afghanista­n and back again, in a dif­fer­ent form, to London and Manch­ester.

Do we need a book of rem­i­nis­cences writ­ten by nearly 70 jour­nal­ists? Haven’t they al­ready had their say many times over?

We ab­so­lutely do need such a book and the elo­quent rea­son why is pro­vided by former US sen­a­tor Ge­orge Mitchell, who helped to bro­ker the Good Fri­day Agree­ment.

In his in­tro­duc­tion to Re­port­ing the Trou­bles, com­piled by Deric Hen­der­son and Ivan Lit­tle, Mitchell notes that lit­tle has been said or writ­ten about “a small group of coura­geous men and women” – the re­porters who through their work made an enor­mous con­tri­bu­tion to the peace ef­fort.

The re­sult­ing book will leave a last­ing im­pres­sion and as Mitchell says, “con­tains ac­counts of death and life, of loss and sur­vival, of hero­ism and cow­ardice, all of which in the ag­gre­gate con­vey the swirl of emo­tions ex­pe­ri­enced by those who lived through the Trou­bles”.

All the big sto­ries are there by those who re­ported them at the time for news­pa­pers, ra­dio and tele­vi­sion. They range from the his­toric events, Bloody Sun­day, Bloody Fri­day and Omagh, to all the pre­vi­ously un­known vil­lages that were thrust into a per­ma­nent no­to­ri­ety by the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted there.

Alas, places such as Claudy, Greysteel, Poyntz­pass, Kingsmills and Darkley are largely re­mem­bered for one thing.

Then there are the bombed bars, restau­rants, ho­tels and fish and chip shops of Belfast, never mind the lethal bombs in Dublin.

What­ever hap­pened re­porters, of­ten at con­sid­er­able per­sonal risk, were never far be­hind de­spite the to­tal ab­sence of mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools. In those days the skill was find­ing a house with a phone and get­ting per­mis­sion to use it.

They were wit­ness to ev­ery­thing from body parts be­ing shov­elled up in Belfast to soldiers be­ing shot be­fore their eyes. These are hardly ex­pe­ri­ences rec­ol­lected in tran­quil­lity, more through flash­backs that for some con­tinue to this day, but at least now through the longer lens of time.

Many of the brief chap­ters – news­pa­per ar­ti­cle length – in Re­port­ing the Trou­bles are dif­fi­cult to read with­out a tear. One is by De­nis Mur­ray, former Ire­land cor­re­spon­dent of the BBC, then work­ing for the Belfast Tele­graph. It was St Pa­trick’s night 1977 in Belfast and Daniel Carville, who was driv­ing near his home in Belfast, died in a hail of bul­lets shield­ing his 10-year-old son Frankie. He was a Catholic shot at ran­dom. The next day Mur­ray used a quote from Frankie, which be­came the Belfast Tele­graph head­line.

“Why does there have to be bad peo­ple in the world. My Daddy was good,” said Frankie.


On that day Mur­ray asked the ques­tion ev­ery jour­nal­ist in the Trou­bles asked them­selves: what the hell am I do­ing in the houses of the re­cently be­reaved, ask­ing ques­tions in the midst of such suf­fer­ing?

“It was some­thing re­porters did, and per­haps at the end of the day, it was all we could do – tell peo­ple’s sto­ries,” ar­gues Mur­ray who be­lieves one of the real tragedies of the Trou­bles are the for­got­ten deaths. Ev­ery St Pa­trick’s Day the former BBC cor­re­spon­dent says he thinks of Daniel Carville and Frankie “a wee boy ev­ery bit as brave as his daddy”.

Noel Do­ran, now editor of the Ir­ish News, was one of those who went with trep­i­da­tion to the door of Gor­don Wil­son the day af­ter the En­niskillen Re­mem­brance Day bomb­ing. He was in­vited in and of­fered tea.

In the in­ter­views Wil­son said he for­gave the bombers who mur­dered his daugh­ter and his quote: “I bear no ill will, I bear no grudge”, went round the world and was seen as a piv­otal point in the Trou­bles.

There was real dan­ger for jour­nal­ists too – jour­nal­ists such as Jim Camp­bell, North­ern editor of the Sun­day World, who was “tech­ni­cally dead” for a time when he was shot sev­eral times in the stom­ach af­ter an­swer­ing the door at his north Belfast home.

He had been writ­ing ar­ti­cles about a loy­al­ist mur­der gang.

Camp­bell, who still has a bul­let lodged in his spine from the near-fa­tal at­tack, re­counts how ear­lier he had been kid­napped by the Pro­vi­sional IRA who thought he was a Bri­tish spy and later badly beaten up by Bri­tish soldiers who thought he was work­ing for the Provos.

There was hu­mour too – the English jour­nal­ist who in a Derry ho­tel asked if he could have eggs and ba­con but with­out the ba­con – only to be told ba­con was com­pul­sory.

The man­ager of the Europa dis­trib­uted half bot­tles of cham­pagne for jour­nal­ists “to wash their teeth” when wa­ter was cut off by a bomb.

Then there was Sammy Duddy, press of­fi­cer of the UDA, who moon­lighted as a drag artist in his best fish­net tights driv­ing Sam Smyth of the Ir­ish Mail on Sun­day on fool­hardy vis­its to loy­al­ist clubs.

Sure, at least at the be­gin­ning, many re­porters were young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced, and there was ex­cite­ment and adrenalin, and many ca­reers were made as re­sult, al­beit at con­sid­er­able risk and last­ing cost.

But they did tell their sto­ries and know­ing the full grisly de­tails of how lives were changed for­ever and com­mu­ni­ties split apart, was a nec­es­sary part of putting a stop to it.

This Ir­ish jour­nal­ist who never re­ported the Trou­bles stands in awe of those who did, and wel­comes this mov­ing book as a tribute, partly about jour­nal­ists and what they did but more about those they came across in their line of work - liv­ing, in­jured, dead and be­reaved.

The last word per­haps should go to Alf McCreary, for many years a Belfast Tele­graph fea­ture writer, who ex­pe­ri­enced the af­ter­math of Bloody Fri­day.

“As I get older I be­come very sad­dened when I think of those things, and I won­der what all the suf­fer­ing achieved in the end. I can only hope and pray that it will never hap­pen here again,” McCreary con­cluded.

We can all only hope and pray that amid the wran­gling over Brexit and the Bor­der that McCreary is right and that Re­port­ing the Trou­bles re­mains a work of his­tory.

Ray­mond Sn­oddy is a former me­dia editor of the and


Fi­nan­cial Times

‘‘ Camp­bell, who still has a bul­let lodged in his spine, re­counts how ear­lier he had been kid­napped by the Pro­vi­sional IRA who thought he was a Bri­tish spy and later badly beaten up by Bri­tish soldiers who thought he was work­ing for the Provos


A jour­nal­ist works on her story in front of an ar­moured car on the Ar­donne Road at the Catholic and Protes­tant di­vide in Belfast in 2001.

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