Friday, August 15, 2008

15 August ... Omagh

Growing up in Northern Ireland, I’ve childhood memories of family trips into Belfast to go shopping, passing through the security barriers at the top of Royal Avenue, being frisked, and the whine of the handheld scanners (that wouldn’t have looked amiss as props in Blakes 7).

There would be the inevitable reminder that if there was any kind of trouble and we got split up, we should meet up the Lisburn Road at the Medical Biology Centre car park. It was far enough out of the city centre that it should have been well away from any incident affecting the main shopping area. Thankfully, we never had to use this precaution.

The fifteen of August marks the day I started work after graduating in 1994.

Four years later, on the morning of Saturday 15 August 1998, we’d headed west from Lisburn to take a church summer team to the Marble Arch Caves. Along with teenage leaders from across Ireland, there were a handful of Americans over lending a hand. We had a fun time meandering along the underground walkway, ogling at the stalactites and stalagmites, and surfaced into sunlight mid-afternoon.

On the way home, we stopped off at Erneside Shopping Centre, arranging to meet back at the cars in half an hour.

Ten minutes later, there was a bomb scare.

Where were the team? Some were still in sight, others had wandered off through the shops. Some maybe had gone into the town centre. An awful sick feeling of a complete lack of control.

Ten years ago, bomb scares had become a rarity, no longer a “normal” part of life to be factored into planning. So there had been no instruction to meet anywhere particular in the event of any problems.

Thankfully they all appeared back within a few minutes as word spread across the town. And we got back in the cars, and headed back to Lisburn. Everyone in the cars was chatting, so the radios weren’t on, and we reached home before we heard the news about Omagh.

The bomb scare we’d experienced in Enniskillen was one of many in the area following the enormous blast in Omagh town centre around 3.10pm, killing 29 and injuring. As the radio in church hall’s kitchen relayed the scale of atrocity, the team came to terms with being unexpected so close to the tragedy, their anxiety heightened by the bomb scare they’d got caught up in.

Maybe the rest of us had become hardened over the years, still shocked but with defence barriers that limit the outward expression of emotion. But the Americans were particularly shaken, visibly distressed. And I’ll always remember that despite being offered a phone to ring home and allay any family fears that they might have been involved, they instead preferred to walk together as a group into Lisburn and huddle together around a payphone on Bow Street to talk to their parents who would be waking up to the news from Northern Ireland on breakfast TV. In the absence of parents, they became family for each other, providing emotional support in their situation.

And so today, ten years later, I remember the day that Omagh was bombed and those affected by it in and around Omagh, in Donegal, in Spain ... as well as those in America who’ll remember and reflect on that day for the rest of their lives.

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