How Ordinary Irish Citizens Got Caught Up in the Violence of the Troubles

It’s a spring day in 1972, and Frank Hegarty is part of an IRA parade that’s moving slowly through the streets of Derry. The weather is overcast and uninviting, but the turnout that day is huge and the atmosphere crackles with intent. Frank is near the front of the procession, just ahead of the main body of IRA volunteers in black berets, bright white belts, polished boots, and heavy green jackets. (No balaclavas; they would come later.)

Frank Hegarty is not in uniform. Instead, he is wearing a collar- less shirt and fleece-lined anorak. He looks like a man who takes care with his appearance. Frank also gives the impression of being completely relaxed in this setting, like someone who has found a place where he belongs. Some of the people who have come to see the parade recognize him as he marches past. But none can tell just by watching The General what his role in all this could be.

It is hard for any of the spectators to know who is “involved” in the IRA and who is just tagging along. That’s the point. You’re not supposed to brag to your neighbors about having been sworn into the IRA. But taking part in this parade, held each year to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising, when a group of Irish revolutionaries declared independence in Dublin before being overwhelmed by the British, is a way of letting people know that you are, at least, somewhere in the mix.

Another man out on the streets that day is the former butcher’s boy who has recently taken control of a local IRA brigade. He is someone Frank has come to know in the previous few months. He has curly red hair and terrible eyesight. He is taller than most of the other men in that parade and, like Frank, you’re unlikely to see him in uniform. His name is Martin McGuinness.

Frank Hegarty and Martin McGuinness are both relatively new to this. Both men’s parents lived through the partition of Ireland in 1921, which led to the birth of the Irish Free State, containing twenty-six of the island’s thirty-two counties, and Northern Ireland, made up of the remaining six, but none of them came to think of themselves as “republicans.”

The sight of Frank in the parade comes as a surprise to some people only because it is so completely at odds with his past.

Neither the McGuinnesses nor the Hegartys believed it was right to use violence in the struggle for a united Ireland. Martin McGuinness had not grown up on stories of relatives planting bombs and risking their lives to force the British government out of Northern Ireland, and nor had Frank Hegarty.

The sight of Frank in the parade comes as a surprise to some people only because it is so completely at odds with his past. After leaving school, Frank became a lorry driver. He spent most of his twenties, which coincided with the 1960s, steering heavy articulated vehicles through the labyrinth of byways, tracks, and A-roads around Derry. His father, Frank Senior, worked for the same company. Often, they were together on the same jobs. Frank was married, and had what appeared to be a steady life.

But by 1972, that has changed. Frank no longer has a job and his marriage is effectively over. He is living with his parents again in the Hegarty family home, a larger-than-average house in Rosemount, a well-to-do area up the hill from the more flyblown neighborhoods of Creggan and the Bogside. The mood in the city around him is unlike anything he ever experienced as a child. There is anger in the air, a roiling sense of injustice that can be traced back to what happened here, in Derry, just two months ago.

On 30 January 1972, soldiers from the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, known as “1 Para,” opened fire on a crowd of mostly Catholic protesters, and in less than half an hour had shot twenty-six people. Fourteen of them would die of their injuries. None had been armed.

The casualties on what became known as “Bloody Sunday” ranged from John Johnston, a fifty-nine-year-old who had not been part of the protest, but was on his way to see a friend, through to the first to be killed, seventeen-year-old John Duddy, shot in the back as he ran away from the soldiers. You would have to go back to 1819, in Manchester, when armed cavalry charged at a crowd of protesters in the Peterloo Massacre, to find a time when more British people were killed by their own armed forces.

Bloody Sunday was enough in itself to turn most Catholics against the soldiers patrolling their streets. But what made this so much more troubling for someone like Frank was that it seemed to be part of a pattern. Troops from the same unit, 1 Para, had been responsible the year before for the deaths of nine people in Belfast, in what was called the “Ballymurphy Massacre.”

One of those killed was Father Hugh Mullan, a much-loved local priest, who was shot as he tried to help an injured man. Another was a forty-four-year-old mother of eight, Joan Connolly, who had once offered sandwiches and tea to passing troops, and whose eldest daughter had recently married a British soldier.

The situation was so bad that ordinary people like Frank Hegarty, with no history of violence, were becoming involved.

Stories were also rippling out across the region about the army’s treatment of the “Hooded Men,” a group of fourteen young Catholics who had been taken away with their heads covered, subjected to white noise, stood against a wall, and deprived of sleep and food for long periods.

The army’s reaction to each incident usually had the effect of making things worse. A military spokesman would deny any wrongdoing by the soldiers and allege that the victims had been armed. This inflamed the pain felt by those who had just lost a parent, sibling, or child, while also adding to the suspicion many of them had that the British Army was above the law.

Injustice and helplessness are an explosive mix. In the weeks after British soldiers opened fire in Derry, hundreds of young men and women looked for ways to join paramilitary organizations such as the Provisional IRA. Some were driven by a desire for revenge. Others felt this was the only way to protect their community. “Our motivation had nothing to do with any kind of political ideology,” one of these recruits later said. “It was instinctive. We had that gut, instinctive feeling that what we were doing was right.”

All over the region, ordinary people were being drawn into the vortex of violence, including many who had never before held a gun or so much as dreamed of planting a bomb. One of these was Frank Hegarty.

Even if the nature of Frank’s involvement is a mystery to those watching him take part in the IRA parade, shortly after Bloody Sunday, they can see that he is comfortable in this setting. From the shape of his shoulders and the easy expression in his eyes, The General looks as if he is used to this, and that there’s nothing unusual about all the paramilitary uniforms, the British soldiers, the massed ranks of police, the more pronounced tribal divisions, the grief, the uncertainty, and the steadily rising death count.

But none of this is normal. Four years earlier, if Frank were to open his window at night, he would have heard little more than the sound of passing cars. By the time of the parade, in 1972, it could be hard to sleep at night for the rumble of passing army helicopters, the roar of distant crowds, the clatter of dustbin lids on pavements as people warned their neighbors of an approaching army patrol, the thump-thump-thump of a Thompson sub-machine gun, or the thunderclap of another IRA bomb. In 1972 alone, IRA volunteers in Northern Ireland detonated more than a thousand explosive devices.

Either they were trying to destroy buildings connected in some way to the British state, or they wanted to kill British soldiers and Protestant civilians. One of their deadliest attacks that year was known as “Bloody Friday,” when a series of IRA bombs in Belfast killed seven civilians and two soldiers and left 130 people injured. This was described in one newspaper as a new nadir in the Troubles, the point at which “the three-year bloodbath in Ulster reached a new level of savagery.”

The situation in Northern Ireland by the end of 1972 was worse than ever. More people were being killed than at any point in the region’s history. The IRA was larger and more active, and the same was true of Protestant paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force. Both had been responsible for a number of horrific killings. Seventy-two civilians died in the violence that year, as well as five policemen, a hundred and seventeen Protestant paramilitaries, and two-hundred and twenty-nine IRA volunteers.

Eighty-one British soldiers were also killed in 1972, and senior army officers were starting to run out of ideas for how to end the bloodshed. Some were struggling to adjust to this strange and hostile environment. “Soldiers were burned by petrol bombs, hurt in riots or shot at by snipers,” one army officer recalled. “There would be riots every night and you had bricks and bottles raining down on you.” It was, he said, “complete chaos,” adding ruefully, of the contrast to the start of the Troubles, “there were no cups of tea this time.”

British soldiers had been sent over to Northern Ireland to restore peace. Three years later, they were up against a full-blown insurgency. For many of them, it was if they had been ordered into a quagmire, and the harder they tried to get out, the deeper they sank.

It was a Catch-22. They could only leave Northern Ireland once peace was restored, and for that to happen they needed to leave.

The problem was not just their presence but the way they reacted to some of the attacks. Most soldiers were being told to use tactics that had last been tried during the break-up of the British Empire in countries such as Kenya, Malaya, and Cyprus. Often, the troops were “too indiscriminate and vigorous,” one officer wrote, “too many citizens had been unnecessarily inconvenienced and alienated, too many random arrests had been made, and some wholly unjustifiable incidents had occurred.”

If the British Army was going to find a way out of Northern Ireland, it needed a new approach. The situation was so bad that ordinary people like Frank Hegarty, with no history of violence, were becoming involved. But some army officers saw in this an opportunity. It meant that more individuals than ever were carrying around knowledge that could be turned into intelligence and then used to prevent future attacks.

One question was how to get at this information and find out what people like Frank knew. Another was whether this was really going to make a difference.


Four Shots in the Night: A True Story of Spies, Murder, and Justice in Northern Ireland - Hemming, Henry

Four Shots in the Night: A True Story of Spies, Murder, and Justice in Northern Ireland by Henry Hemming is available via PublicAffairs.

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