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A View North ‘Lost Lives’: a grim accounting of fate

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

If one set out to compile an "essential literature" of the Northern Irish conflict, then "Lost Lives: The Stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles" (distributed in the U.S. by Trafalgar Square, N. Pomfret, VT. 05053) would act as a kind of cornerstone for the collection.

David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton have created a chronicle of more than 30 years of political violence based on the stories of the 3,636 victims who died as a result of that violence between June 11, 1966 and July 29, 1999. Their story takes up just over 1,400 pages, beginning with the murder of John Patrick Scullion and ending with the murder of Charles Bennet.

The entries are exhaustive, and include details not only of the circumstances of each death, but also which group or organization was responsible (where it is possible to establish that fact, and it generally is), if the killing was solved, and any unusual facts surrounding the event. The entries are written without comment, judgmental or otherwise; there is no political analysis. The facts are allowed to speak for themselves. And frequently they speak with great eloquence, but it is with the eloquence of an elegy, a lament for lives lost and — for the most part — lost needlessly.

The book also contains a useful analysis of the grim statistics. The authors break down the fatalities into several different categories: by year, by organization and by location. These divisions show that the most dangerous year was 1972, with 496 deaths; the biggest taker of life was the Provisional IRA, which killed 1,771 people, and the place where most were killed was Belfast, where 1,647 lost their lives. (Though in terms of per head of population, the authors note, Armagh was probably more dangerous.)

However, these are not the facts (no matter how interesting) which tell the real story.

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"Lost Lives" is a unique chronicle of conflict because it is told entirely from the point of view of the victims, both "combatant" and "innocent" (I put these terms in quotations because one thing the chronicle makes clear is that at times it is difficult to tell the difference between them.) Of course, it was only possible to do this with the Northern Ireland conflict because it was on such a small scale. Wars, especially in the 20th century, have consumed millions upon millions of lives. More than 30,000 people have already died in the new millennium in one conflict alone — that between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a conflict that has been hardly noticed in the U.S. media, which gave more attention to the dispute between Disney and Time-Warner Cable. But the vaster numbers of dead should not blind us to the essential fact, as applicable to the titanic conflicts that have transformed whole continents and swept away empires as it is to the small-scale slaughter in the North, that every victim was an individual before he or she became a war-time statistic. War is the ultimate dehumanizer, and to end up as a statistic is part of that process of dehumanization. If the victims’ humanity is to be restored, then their individual stories must be told.

The scale of the conflict in the North has allowed this to be done, and "Lost Lives" has done it admirably. The authors have included little details of the victims’ lives which rescue them from the statistical obscurity into which time has hurled them.

Victim No. 919, killed on Aug. 15, 1973, was Edward Joseph Drummond, a 49-year-old fruit seller, whom everyone knew around town as Buxie. The authors’ note:

"A well known Belfast ‘character,’ he died when a UVF car bomb exploded as he was leaving the Sportsman’s Bar on the corner of York Street and Little Patrick Street. . . . The sports newspaper Ireland’s Saturday Night paid tribute to him: ‘He had that jaunty Francie-and-Josey walk or as one colleague described it today, the sophisticated dander . . . when Buxie was around you were sure of a laugh; he liked his drink and his fun.’ "

Victim No. 779 was 9-year-old William Gordon Gallagher, who died "after an IRA landmine exploded as he played in the back garden of his home in Leenan Gardens on the Creggan estate" in Derry on Feb. 23, 1973.

"A postman who was among the first on the scene said: ‘I saw a young boy crawling along the ground covered in blood. He looked up at me and said: ‘Help me, mister, I’m hurt.’ . . . An operation to amputate both the child’s legs failed to save his life."

And victim No. 2784? She was 76-year-old pensioner Kathleen Mullan, a Catholic "shot by the UDA/UFF" on the morning of Oct. 16, 1986 at her farmhouse near Ballynahinch, Co. Down.

The inquest was told that a single gunman entered her home and opened fire on her son Terry, who fled.

The authors write that the gunman "chased him to the living room, firing another shot, and finally caught him on the porch shooting, him three more times. He was hit by fire of the six shots fired. The scientist said the elderly woman was hit in the chest, possibly by a shot that had passed through her son’s arm." The son died with his mother.

In the entry for victim No. 765, 38-year-old Catholic Hugh Connolly, killed by the British army on Feb. 7, 1973, the authors add this detail:

"A family member said: ‘He worked for Belfast Corporation and was a simple type. He’d go to bingo with his wife, linking arms with her in the street.’ " He died when he "heard a banging on the entry door and went to open it. Some young lads ran by him and the army shot him.’"

Then there is No. No. 584 — a 50-year-old laborer named Robert Johnston, an East Belfast Protestant who was shot dead by the army on Sept. 7, 1972. According to "Lost Lives":

"Civilian witnesses described him at the inquest as a ‘harmless drunk’ who, when he was shot, was shouting ‘the meek shall inherit the earth.’ "

"It’s the children that upset me most," said the widow of John Hillman, a British soldier, and victim No. 362, shot dead by the IRA on May 18, 1972. "I’ve got photos of the funeral and the 3-year-old will pull one out and say, ‘That’s daddy. He’s coming home, is he? Well then, when are we going to see him? Ain’t he coming home to play with me any more?’ "

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