Image: The scene of the Coshquin bombing, 1990. Credit: Pacemaker Press International, all rights reserved.
The bomb went off in the early morning, about 4 or 5 am. In Coshquin, just outside Derry – about six miles away from where I grew up in Donegal in the Irish Republic.
I remember it as a booming thud. I didn’t think much of it - I’d heard bombs before. I tried to get back to sleep. Back in October 1990, it was no big deal. There was no shortage of bombs in Derry and around the border throughout the 70s and 80s. Probably a controlled explosion by the British army, I thought, or even a dummy run up in the hills on the Donegal side of the border by the Provos.
There were lots of dark mutterings about who was responsible in the days afterwards. The IRA, of course. But in a small rural area on the border adjoining a small city like Derry, people have a good idea of who was actually responsible. Best not to speak though. Dangerous times produce dangerous people with dangerous ideologies. You never know. Whatever you say, say nothin’. It was, and still is to some extent, a “land of password, handgrip, wink and nod.” , as Seamus Heaney so perceptively pointed out.
Whoever it was, they’d chained Patsy Gillespie tightly into a van loaded with over a thousand pounds worth of explosives at gun point. His wife and kids were held at gunpoint during the ordeal. They then told him to drive the van out the Buncrana road to the heavily fortified British army checkpoint at Coshquin. Patsy had worked in an army base in the city. He’d been told to stop by the local brigade many times. But he was a stubborn wee man by all accounts. Pushed his luck not fully realising the danger, perhaps.
They eventually got pissed off with him and, in the moral climate of the times, didn’t think too much of using his body as a proxy bomb, suicide bomb really, to kill him and five soldiers.
Blown to fucking pieces some said. Desperate altogether, said others in the passive voice, careful not to offend anyone who might be listening. Some wondered about the callous inhumanity of it, some even said he asked for it, working for the Brits, most kept quiet. Everybody was affected by it, deeply. My father knew Patsy, knew his wife too.
A war crime, the best said, but the anodyne & abstract language of the law doesn’t capture the horror of thousands of pieces of human flesh, some found on the trees and branches for days and weeks afterwards.
By 1990 and twenty years of the Troubles, moral certainty and absolutist conviction were left only for the ideologues. Everyone else had been compromised and mugged by reality, and left to try and make sense of what had now become the ‘imaginable’.
In the days afterwards, I thought about the final moments of his life. I still do sometimes. What kind of abject and total terror must he have felt? How terribly alone he must have felt as he saw the checkpoint coming towards him on his last pitiful moments on earth. Knowing that, for him, it was all over in just a few miles, as he drove to Coshquin. Did he pray, or ask for forgiveness to god, any god? Did he say an act of contrition, maybe? Over and over again?
Last week I watched Channel Four news on British TV. There was lots of breathless excitement about Brexit this and Brexit that, and that “bloody Irish border backstop nonsense”. - lots of people talking about falling off a cliff and all the usual hyperbole.
A leading Brexiteer was being interviewed - tall, supercilious man with impeccable manners and a thin unlived in face. Earlier a jovial and jocular Boris Johnson had been interviewed by the BBC, shifting from one foot to another. Both smirked, condescended and bullshitted their way through the interviews, full of their own self-importance and privilege.
Both gave out about the relative unimportance of the Irish border to their plans for a nice clean, uncomplicated Brexit.
Triflingly small in the grand scheme of things really, they must feel, this Irish border kerfuffle. People can “just be inspected” like before during the Troubles, Rees Mogg reckoned.
Rees Mogg’s view, it emerged in the summer, was that “there would be our ability, as we had during the Troubles, to have people inspected. It’s not a border that everyone has to go through every day, but of course for security reasons during the Troubles, we kept a very close eye on the border, to try and stop gun-running and things like that.”
Inspected. Keeping a close eye. Things like that. Simple really.
How easily some are rendered expendable – and how easily they and reasons why they died are conveniently forgotten.
Forgotten, incidentally, by the same politicians who emote convincingly and sanctimoniously about the great sacrifices of war and how ‘they’ fought for our freedoms. Never any mention of political and economic greed and hubris as the poppies get more and more ostentatious.
When all the kerfuffle about the border is over, these politicians will probably retreat back, Gatsby-like, into their riches or “their vast carelessness” and let other people clean up the mess they’ve caused.
But in their privileged and insulated bubble they’ll never know what it might feel like to be Patsy Gillespie, or the five dead British soldiers. They probably don’t even know they ever existed. The life and terrible death of the poor, the desperate, or the just pure unlucky don’t seem to matter too much to the likes of Johnson and Rees Mogg and their grand geopolitical schemes.