When Dublin Trembled

First published in The Spectator17 May 2011 
 

On 17 May 1974 — 37 years ago today — I was a 19-year-old student at Trinity College Dublin, celebrating the end of term in the Pavilion Bar near the sports fields. The summer exams were still to come, but we were carefree; the main subject of conversation was whether we could organise a disco party later on. Then, a little after 5.30 p.m., everything changed. First, all about
us seemed to shiver, as if there were an earth tremor. Then, just as it occurred to me that Dublin did not generally suffer tectonic stress, there was a deafening bang that seemed to go on for an age.

Somebody shouted: ‘It’s a fucking bomb!’

What I did next may seem strange, but I was an avid photographer, used to recording the world around me, and I took my camera almost everywhere in a little canvas bag. It was with me that day. I grabbed it and dashed out, heading straight for South Leinster Street, the source of the ear-splitting noise very close by. Personal safety was not a concern at this point.

I passed through an open side gate and found myself instinctively snatching picture after picture of a street full of human suffering and destruction: people running to and fro past large glassless gaps in shops and offices. Chaos everywhere and I remember trying hard to stop my hands shaking so I could take photographs without any blur . Then, I became aware of a strange billowing sound interspersed with crackling noises. I took a few more steps before I saw where it was coming from: a red sports car, ablaze and giving off pungent smoke and waves of piercing heat. My eyes watered and I found it hard to breathe. The street was covered in bits of everything all over the place. Around me were people with fear etched on their faces. Some were badly hurt and clothing torn away; one teenage boy’s forehead was caked in blood.

Suddenly, from my right, two men in shirt-sleeves advanced with confident strides on a burning corpse, with a large white sheet or towel held in front of them. They quickly doused the flames. With the fire out, the men stood back and stared at the lifeless victim they had just rendered assistance to. One of the men had his knees slightly bent and made a hurried sign of the cross — and, as he did so, I saw his lips move as if in prayer, but I could not make out a single word of what was being said. I wondered momentarily if my hearing had been affected.

I took several paces forward and observed a tell-tale gap between two pulverised vehicles,  a space where the bomb-laden car had been moments before. I think I might have taken a photo or two at this stage but I can't be sure as an unfamiliar maelstrom of adrenalin, extreme fear and horror was churning inside me and now ruling my every movement. For the first time in my life, my eyes fell on the remains of a person murdered violently and with such inhuman cruelty. I could see this dead body scorched black by being so close to what I surmised to be the epicentre of the explosion. There was no blood visible and I could just make out that the victim was female on account of her badly-singed shoes with heels beside her lifeless feet on the pavement. I felt compelled to look away as I felt my insides lurch sickeningly.

Eventually, after what seemed a long time, the emergency services arrived. On South Leinster Street, two women had been killed instantly and many injured. Elsewhere in Dublin and Monaghan, some 33 other people were killed and almost 300 wounded: this day saw the largest number of casualties in any single day of "The Troubles" as this terrible period in Ireland's recent history came to be known.

I still wonder about this awful experience now even after 37 years and I have an inkling of what it must be like for those who have experienced far worse in terms of terrorist outrages or horrendous scenes of war. You can see one of my photographs at the top of this post, and a selection of others below:

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

P.S.    In the early 1970s as a young Dubliner, one was aware of but largely unaffected by ‘The Troubles’ experienced in full measure by its sister capital, Belfast in Northern Ireland, a little over 100 miles away. Yes, there had been politically-motivated incidents in Dublin previously resulting in a number of deaths but living in the South one had been largely shielded from the worst of the social and terrorist violence of the North.

The shocking events of 17 May 1974, however, changed all that. It was a terrifying experience for our family as by a strange coincidence, my (late) father who was Research Librarian in the University was attending a lecture on the TCD campus very close by in the Moyne Institute (of Medicine).

You will recall from my above article that after the sound of the explosion I had grabbed my camera and headed towards a side gate in the perimeter wall of Trinity that was open. As I ran towards it I was shocked to see my father standing there motionless with a grim expression on his face. As chaos reigned just yards away on South Leinster Street, I recall us having a surreal  conversation as he told me that several of those attending the lecture he had been present at near to where the bomb had detonated had been blown out of their seats injuring a number plus some others had been badly cut by flying glass. Fortunately, my father was unhurt. People passed between us at this narrow gateway hurrying to and fro as we both surveyed this scene of destruction. I remember my father saying: “It’s like Belfast now. The North has come south”. He then warned me that there might be another unexploded device waiting to go off nearby but with the bravado of youth I ignored his plea of commonsense. The next thing I remember was being on the street, camera in hand, surrounded by the carnage caused by a bomb (hidden in the boot of a car) that had exploded without warning a short distance away. It was blown to smithereens. Later, we learnt that this obliterated vehicle had been hijacked in the North earlier the same day. As I write these words, I find myself reliving these awful events in surreal shades of grainy grey and black where the sounds, the smells and the fear are palpable all over again.

But I’ll come back to the premise that triggered this addition to my ‘blog’: why did I write this? How long do you have? But the shorter response would be that growing up as I did in Dublin in the 1970s, one’s life was punctuated by the regular news bulletins of events in Northern Ireland as there was a near daily toll of brutality, shootings, arrests and, of course, bombings brought about to my young mind at the time by political intransigence borne of centuries of tribalism and well-nursed hatreds of the past. It seemed as if this vortex of violence in the North, the dreaded ‘Troubles’ would never end and now Dublin was being sucked into this destructive whirlwind.

Fast forward to April 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement. This was a landmark moment in Northern Irish Affairs which enabled the two opposing blocs of the North to live more peaceably together. And over the ensuing 13 years, the political landscape of Northern Ireland has evolved to what it is today thanks to what was done by so many ready to work hard to overturn the bloody construct of the recent past that had taken on a semblance of brutish normality. Life in the North has been transformed for the better where the dark days of the 1970s were being consigned to history.

This actually has been a painful odyssey of healing over many years. Painful in two ways. First, on a personal level, I have revisited some very upsetting memories of nearly 40 years ago in attempting to discuss this subject and issues arising in a constructive, reflective and open manner. Also, I am sure there are many others who have experienced far worse during ‘The Troubles’. And secondly, it has been a very painful journey at another level in that it has been a long-standing saga of woe over centuries literally when Anglo-Irish relations has been the subject of conversation. The Queen’s successful sojourn in Ireland in 2011 has ‘moved mountains’ in enabling this process of healing between our two nations to come to a successful and happy ending. From what I can gather, Ireland has been ‘wowed’ by her visit. It has also been a very emotional experience for many Irish people as my sister (resident just outside Dublin) avers and it has meant a great deal to Ireland.

If I may hazard an opinion here, it is the finely-focused and personal perception of the intertwined history of our two islands – rather than an objective interpretation of how events have unfolded – as this is what often prompts our reactions to these thorny issues, myself included. It’s almost as if I were admitting that there are different ‘histories’ at play here, such as, ‘personal history’ and then ‘academic history’ at one remove. But I digress.

Nevertheless, there is a pivotal point that enables us as human beings to draw on this valuable reservoir of knowledge that we carry about in our heads all the time throughout our lives and then to utilise it in a positive and uplifting manner to triumph over the hatreds and the poisons of the past within the context of Anglo-Irish relations and to propel us with zest into a future that is collaborative and harmonious. Long live our two islands, Hibernia and Britannia.

 

 

 

 

Comments 5

 
Virginia M Macasaet on Saturday, 23 August 2014 14:23

Nice to see you here Nicholas. I saw the title of the blog and immediately knew it was you!

Nice to see you here Nicholas. I saw the title of the blog and immediately knew it was you!
Nicholas Mackey on Saturday, 23 August 2014 19:21

Hey Rina, nice to hear from you and thank you for commenting.

Hey Rina, nice to hear from you and thank you for commenting.
Rosy Cole on Monday, 25 August 2014 12:58

What creates immense tension in experience, as in writing, is the balance between subjectivity and objectivity, the point at which the best truth we can arrive at, lies. It is quite an accomplishment, though at a personal cost, I'm sure, to have conveyed this.

I remember that Good Friday of April 1998 so well. I remember where I was when the news came, a sun-shaft of hope charged with scepticism. Could it really be true? We had witnessed the appalling and pointless slaughter for so long. Since many of us have Irish ancestry and connections, the memory of Gladstone's claim (I believe) that whenever a solution to the Irish conundrum was ventured, they changed the question, could not be entirely banished. It wasn't just about the Emerald Isle, it was about humanity fullstop. If the Irish could do it, it must be possible elsewhere.

Yes, I remember that day. The Leicestershire valley where I lived at the time was deluged to an extent not experienced in living memory up to then, and travel was curtailed. I was in the kitchen, whisking egg-whites for a soufflee. It was my birthday.

What creates immense tension in experience, as in writing, is the balance between subjectivity and objectivity, the point at which the best truth we can arrive at, lies. It is quite an accomplishment, though at a personal cost, I'm sure, to have conveyed this. I remember that Good Friday of April 1998 so well. I remember where I was when the news came, a sun-shaft of hope charged with scepticism. Could it really be true? We had witnessed the appalling and pointless slaughter for so long. Since many of us have Irish ancestry and connections, the memory of Gladstone's claim (I believe) that whenever a solution to the Irish conundrum was ventured, they changed the question, could not be entirely banished. It wasn't just about the Emerald Isle, it was about humanity fullstop. If the Irish could do it, it must be possible elsewhere. Yes, I remember that day. The Leicestershire valley where I lived at the time was deluged to an extent not experienced in living memory up to then, and travel was curtailed. I was in the kitchen, whisking egg-whites for a soufflee. It was my birthday.
Nicholas Mackey on Monday, 25 August 2014 17:18

Thank you for your well considered comment on my writing - much appreciated. In truth, I never set out to balance subjectivity and objectivity as you describe - I just wrote it that way. I am intrigued as to how you have forged a personal connection with the Good Friday Agreement and what it has meant for you.

Thank you for your well considered comment on my writing - much appreciated. In truth, I never set out to balance subjectivity and objectivity as you describe - I just wrote it that way. I am intrigued as to how you have forged a personal connection with the Good Friday Agreement and what it has meant for you.
Rosy Cole on Tuesday, 26 August 2014 18:07

Yes, I realise this was instinctively written as all good writing - the best writing - is.

I don't know much about the Irish thread in my lineage, but was married to a Londoner from a Northern Irish family. He was a devout Roman Catholic, whereas I am an Anglo-Catholic, which presented its own tensions, a common experience in the British Isles. At the end of the day, one cannot surrender a vital belief (though we must be clear on how sound its foundation is and whether it is inspired by personal dogma). Political peace on a more public scale seems to offer hope for divergent beliefs to live side by side. This, quite apart from a reprieve from distressing News programmes! Of course, our screens are bombarded with other horrors now.

Yes, I realise this was instinctively written as all good writing - the best writing - is. I don't know much about the Irish thread in my lineage, but was married to a Londoner from a Northern Irish family. He was a devout Roman Catholic, whereas I am an Anglo-Catholic, which presented its own tensions, a common experience in the British Isles. At the end of the day, one cannot surrender a vital belief (though we must be clear on how sound its foundation is and whether it is inspired by personal dogma). Political peace on a more public scale seems to offer hope for divergent beliefs to live side by side. This, quite apart from a reprieve from distressing News programmes! Of course, our screens are bombarded with other horrors now.
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