Monday, May 16

50 years ago: 13 civilians shot and killed by British soldiers

Denis Bradley was 26 years old when he saw British soldiers kill 13 Catholic protesters during a protest march in Londonderry in Northern Ireland 50 years ago.

Hundreds of people attended Sunday’s memorial service for the Bloody Sunday massacre in Londonderry in Northern Ireland. At the forefront of the memorial march, people walked with pictures of the 13 victims.

Today he is in his 70s, but the memories of what happened during the massacre are still clear. It was a shock when, as a young priest, he watched what everyone thought would be a regular protest march on January 30, 1972, but which in seconds turned into a bloody chaos.

The demonstration was held without permission, and stone-throwing and minor clashes were not uncommon. But no one had believed that British paratroopers would open fire on the unarmed crowd, which was demonstrating against the British government.

– Suddenly I heard gunshots. And that surprised me. And a lot of people ran, says Bradley.

Shortly afterwards, a group of people came carrying what he remembers as a very young man. He had serious gunshot wounds.

Comment: “Bono is still singing his ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, 50 years after the event that created the song.”

Maisie McLaughlin’s (pictured) great-grandfather Bernard McGuigan was one of 13 killed on January 30, 1972. 50 years later, she attended the memorial service for her great-grandfather and the other victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Londonderry.

Six 17-year-olds

– I went away and knelt next to him. And I remember trying to say a few prayers. There was complete panic. People ran everywhere, he says.

Bradley remembers that there was a lot of shooting when he saw the life ebb out of the young man.

– I remember the complexion of the young man. I remember it was gray, it was the kind of color that comes with death, he says.

Within ten minutes, 13 protesters were killed without warning. Six of them were only 17 years old. Another man died of gunshot wounds a few months later.

The 26-year-old priest had seen people die before, but not so many at once. He could see soldiers on the rooftops aiming and firing. There and then he had to decide whether to risk his own life and approach the dead who were left on the ground. He thought he had to move forward in order to live with himself in hindsight.

Shot in the back

– I made an attempt, maybe it was a bad attempt, but I did, and someone said I should not go, he recalls.

He especially remembers one of the soldiers, who just kept firing without any clear target.

Eventually, he and about 20 others were surrounded by British soldiers, who had understood that Bradley was a priest. They were driven away in a truck. Here Bradley thinks he must have been in shock, because there is a lot he does not remember.

Among the others who experienced the massacre up close was Jimmy Toye, who was only 16 years old at the time. He remembers the sound of military vehicles and the shots fired.

– Then people panicked. I started running, and people were running and pushing. One of the guys who ran on my left side was shot in the back, he says to the news agency AFP.

– I thought that one or two soldiers might have gone berserk, Toye says.

– They were so cruel.

Flowers were laid on Sunday around the support in memory of the 13 Catholics who were shot and killed by British soldiers on January 30, 1972.

Fan with handkerchief

Among the victims was the father of six, Barney McGuigan. He was shot by a soldier known as Soldier F., who was charged with murder in 2019. But the case was dropped two years later.

He killed him while holding up his hands with a white handkerchief. He shot him in the head. You could see clearly that he was unarmed, it was no threat. McGuigan was in front of me, I do not want to describe it, but it was … awful, says Toye.

It took 38 years before the victims were cleansed. The first investigation launched by the British authorities concluded that IRA terrorists had infiltrated the demonstration and that the soldiers had done nothing wrong.

John Kelly, who lost his 17-year-old brother Michael, was among those who fought for and ensured that the British authorities launched a new investigation. It lasted for twelve years, and in 2010 a British judge finally concluded that all the victims were unarmed and that they were killed either while fleeing or trying to help others.

The report led to the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron deeply regretting what had happened.

Continued unrest

– The soldiers thought they would teach us a lesson and break us. But fortunately it had the opposite effect. The following week there was a new march, and then 40,000 participated, says Jimmy Toye.

On Sunday, hundreds of people participated in a memorial march where they followed the same route that became fatal for the victims 50 years earlier. Among them were relatives of those killed.

“We have come a long way since the atrocities that day,” Michael McKinney said in a speech during Sunday’s celebration. His brother William was one of those killed.

– This is a big milestone in the journey we have been on all these years, says John Kelly about the 50th anniversary.

He still thinks of his brother, whom he remembers as a joke bird, full of life. But he respected his parents and asked for permission to participate in the march that would end with him being killed.

“Bloody Sunday” is considered one of the worst events of the 30 years often referred to as “The Troubles”, which ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. By then, the Northern Ireland conflict had claimed about 3,500 lives.


“The Bloody Sunday” took place relatively early in “The Troubles” and sent many young Catholics straight into the arms of the armed group IRA.

Among them was Tony Doherty, who was only nine years old when his father was shot in the back and killed by a British soldier. A few years later, as an 18-year-old, he tried to detonate a bomb, but as it did not explode, he escaped with four years in prison.

– The massacre was completely unfounded, the legal process afterwards became like a parody in addition to the tragedy. It affected people who grew up in Derry, like myself, for a long time afterwards, Doherty says.

More unrest after Brexit

The conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists is still raging, and it has become topical since Britain left the EU.

In April last year, the conflict escalated into violence again when extremist unionists, who support the British government in Northern Ireland, threw firebombs at police and dissidents several nights in a row. The unrest was the worst in several years.

In May, there are again elections at the Northern Ireland Electoral Assembly. This time, the victory could go to Sinn Féin, which was previously the political wing of the IRA.

Many Catholic nationalists still dream that Northern Ireland will one day be united with Ireland, and no longer be a British province.

– I hope I get to experience it. This island is too small to be divided, says John Kelly.

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