By Patrick Markey
Sam Gormley was on his way to Kennedy Airport with his nephew when news of a bombing in Northern Ireland crackled over his car radio. It took only a moment to realize a bomb had torn through his hometown Omagh, and had devastated the street where his cousin had worked in a local Woolworth’s supermarket.
"He was pretty shaken up about it," Gormley said of his cousin.
Only when he got home to Orange County, N.Y., later that day and found a message from his sister on the answering machine did Gormley know for sure that his own family was safe.
"I’ve been talking to my family and they’re saying everybody’s walking round in a pure trance. It’s like something they’ve never seen before. Everybody’s sort of helping everybody out," he said.
As British and Irish leaders vow to bring to justice those responsible for Saturday’s bloody explosion in County Tyrone, Irish residents in America reacted with equal shock to the deadliest bombing in the Northern Ireland’s history. Many here said they thought the tragedy would only strengthen the resolve for peace, illustrate that there was no mandate for terror, and possibly end splinter-group resistance to the peace agreement.
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Condemning the attack as an outrage and a senseless act, the County Tyrone Society of New York released a statement that in part read: "The peace process must continue and the radical splinter groups that cause these atrocities need to be outlawed and dealt with appropriately as terrorists."
Others were still trying to deal with the initial shock.
"It’s desperate. People are totally shocked, totally sickened. It’s hard to believe they’d come into their own backyard," said Sean Rice, who is from Omagh City and is the owner of the Irish Rover bar in Queens.
The afternoon bombing left 28 dead, including nine children and more than 200 injured, many of them critically. The bomb exploded near the town’s main shopping area, where many families and shoppers had gathered during the town’s annual summer festival.
On Tuesday, the Republican splinter group the Real IRA had claimed responsibility for the attack, and five men in Omagh were taken in for questioning Monday. The death toll was the worst since August 1979 when 18 soldiers from the British Army’s Parachute regiment were killed in an IRA truck bombing at Warrenpoint.
After Saturday’s explosion, lines of communication were down for hours, leaving many here anxious to contact their relatives and friends. Rice heard about the bombing a few hours after it happened, but finally managed to get through to friends in Omagh on Sunday. Over the weekend, a sense of disbelief filtered through the bar.
"They just don’t understand it," Rice said.
For Patrick McBride, also from Omagh, the news came from a television set in a Sunnyside bar on Saturday. It took until Sunday for him to get in touch with his sister.
"She was on her way to Donegal, and ambulances were streaming into Omagh," McBride said.
McBride said his 14-year-old niece had been near the bomb site just before the explosion. She escaped with cuts and bruises.
"She had to walk through all that. People everywhere. She’s still traumatized," he said.
That many of the wounded were children stunned not only the Irish communities here but also the general public. Paul Johnston, spokesman for the British Consulate in New York City, said his office had already received letters and telephone calls expressing sympathy for the families and condemning the actions of those responsible.
In other Irish strongholds, that outrage was equally apparent.
"It’s a terrible thing. Everyone I’ve spoken to thinks it’s a horrible crime committed against innocent people just going about their business, buying school clothes for their children, enjoying the day," said Tom Conaghan, who is from Donegal and now heads the Federation of Irish Societies in Philadelphia.
"I don’t care who did this, Republican or Loyalist, they’re not human," he said.
In Boston, news of the bombing sent a wave of grief through the Irish community.
"I haven’t met anybody here, anybody, who has said anything but negative things about this. It’s a disaster," said Mark Mathers, a Newry native who lives in Boston and runs the St. Columbkille’s Gaelic Football Club. During weekend practice, players held a minute silence for the victims of the bombing, Mathers said.
In a cruel twist, the Northern Irish children who visited the United States this summer as part of Project Children — the scheme which brings children to America to escape from the troubles — were due to head home this week.
One week after the children arrived the three Quinn brothers were burned to death in an arson attack in Drumcree. The flight home for the first batch of children left on Saturday, just hours after the Omagh bombing.