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Remembering Omagh

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At Mass last Sunday in my parish church there was one of the most beautiful displays of flowers that I have ever seen, behind the altar on both sides and on the right at the front. My friend commented to me that she thought they had been there for a wedding which had taken place on the afternoon of the day before. However, to our surprise, the priest began Mass by drawing everyone’s attention to the gorgeous presentations and told us that in fact, they had been there for a funeral on Saturday morning.

He commented that the family wanted them as a reminder of the Resurrection, something which is often overlooked in the midst of our grieving for the loved one. I think quite a lot of us in the congregation were taken by surprise at the idea of celebration which the image of the flowers evoked.

This is a week when death is very much on our minds as we remember the  25th anniversary of the Omagh bombing. The attack in 1998 devastated the town with the death toll including Avril Monagan who was pregnant with twins. It happened just months after the historic Good Friday Agreement and was the greatest loss of life in a single incident in the North’s troubled history.

Fatal Day

It is believed that on the day of the bombing members of the Real IRA (a group which split from the IRA as a protest against the ceasefire) drove across the border into the largely Catholic town which had long housed a British garrison. The car they were in was carrying a 500-pound bomb which the killers planted close to the junction of Market Street and the Dublin Road in the center of Omagh. This was an area frequently crowded with shoppers, even more so on that particular afternoon which marked the final day of an annual town cross-community carnival.

A warning had been telephoned to a news agency in Belfast approximately 40 minutes before the explosion, but the RUC said that the warning referred to the Omagh Courthouse which is roughly 400 metres from where the bomb exploded.  Indeed, many of those killed and injured had been moved from the vicinity of the courthouse and into the area where the car containing the bomb was situated.

Horror in the Streets

Twenty-nine people lost their lives some of them literally blown to pieces.  There were more Catholics killed than Protestants and also among the victims, one Mormon and two Spanish students.  Six of the dead were children aged twelve and under; another six were teenagers. Hospitals in Co Tyrone were inundated with more than two hundred casualties suffering from blast injuries and severe burns.  Medical staff described the scene as “Battlefield conditions”.

An ambulance transferring patients to hospital in Belfast was involved in a traffic accident with a car on the Knock Road which resulted in the death of the driver, Mr Gary White. 380 people were injured, many maimed and blinded for life.

One eye-witness account came from a woman, Dorothy Boyle, “There were limbs lying about that had been blown off people…  There was a girl in a wheelchair screaming for help who was in a bad way.  There were people with cuts on their foreheads, bleeding.  One young boy had half of his leg completely blown off.  He didn’t cry or anything.  He was just in a complete state of shock.”

The youngest victim of the bombing was 18-month-old Maura Monaghan.  She was the third generation of her family –  her grandmother and mother also died –  to be killed in the attack.  Her small white coffin was carried by relatives at the funeral service she shared with her mother, Avril.

Universal Outrage

There was condemnation of the atrocity by all sections of the community and all shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland and around the world.  Among them, Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster had this to say, “To bring such sadness and suffering to the people of Omagh at this stage is a crime against humanity”.  For the first time, Sinn Fein (Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) and the official IRA joined the worldwide condemnation.

Despite intense investigation into the Omagh Bombing no Real IRA members were successfully prosecuted in criminal courts for involvement although one was convicted only to be ultimately acquitted upon retrial.  However, in 2009 the families of the victims won a largely symbolic civil suit against Michael McKevitt and three other suspected Real IRA members.  McKevitt, believed to have been the leader of the Real IRA at the time of the Omagh attack was already serving time in prison on terrorist charges.

The image of a happy Avril Monaghan, with flowers in her hair on her wedding day is a symbol of all that was lost on that dreadful afternoon.  Her unborn twins, baby daughter and her mother left behind a family which included her three young children.  Avril’s uncle said they were at Mass on the morning she was killed.  “Avril was a woman who expressed her faith; and faith, belief in the Resurrection is the only way a family can come to terms with something like this.”

As Christians this is what we believe and all we can hope for.

May the souls of all who died in the bombing at Omagh rest in peace and may they always be remembered.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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