Personal memories 30 years on from the Poppy Day bomb

The utter devastation of the Enniskillen Poppy Day massacre

I don’t remember if there’d been an overnight downpour but this morning, 30 years ago, I used some discarded bricks as stepping stones to get into my car which was parked in a deep puddle in Belfast.

The makeshift causeway wasn’t particularly successful and my shoe squelched as I accelerated towards Enniskillen.

I was a Radio Ulster news and current affairs journalist going back to the town where I was born immediately after the first tragic details filtered into the newsroom about the 1987 Remembrance Sunday bomb.

My mother still lived there and as there were no car phones back then I phoned her before leaving.

She hadn’t attended the cenotaph but local friends told her about the people who were known to have died and she wept while telling me their names.

Mum was an Austrian refugee whose Jewish father had died in Hitler’s holocaust.

She watched, terrified, as lines of Nazi supporters invaded Vienna’s Jewish-quarter during Kristallnacht on 9th and 10th November 1938

She both shared, and deeply empathised with, Enniskillen’s grief and tragedy.

I knew most of the local people who she named on the phone, her voice spraining with emotion.

Constantly retuning my car radio for newsflashes I drove quickly and soon rendezvoused with several BBC colleagues already in Enniskillen.

We separated to various agreed locations.

I wasn’t a hugely experienced news-journalist and my professional apprehension expanded into numbness as countless childhood memories mixed overwhelmingly with the dawning reality of terrible tragedy.

The qualifying exam, also known as the eleven plus, was probably my most intimidating childhood experience, sitting nervously at a desk in 1960 perusing menacing examination papers.

I stood in the darkening, drizzly dusk on Sunday evening, 8th November 1987 near the tall arc-lights around the cenotaph.

Security men and forensic teams were sifting the rubble amidst the drone and rumble of heavy machinery.

The acrid smell of petrol fumes and scorched wood hung in the air.

Much of the deep-strewn masonry, heaped roof-slates and dislocated rafters had erupted mercilessly from the same building wherein I “sat the qualifying”.

The Remembrance Day bomb exploded in the rooms where myself and several dozen little classmates hoped for the best in 1960.

There wasn’t any hope in my mind in 1987 as I walked up the main street towards Enniskillen’s town centre.

Only hopelessness…and grieving.

All the town’s telephone kiosks were occupied, some with a queue of sombre people waiting to make calls.

The awful news was spreading.

I knew that a number of the dead were from the Presbyterian Church where I paused and listened to a mourning congregation, softly singing hymns and saying prayers.

As a youngster in the junior Boys Brigade (the Life Boys) I attended the hall at the rear of the Presbyterian church every week where we played games, sang hymns, prayed prayers and tried to live up to our motto - ‘Sure and Steadfast’.

The motto offered me little comfort in 1987.

Almost next door to the church, upstairs in the Impartial Reporter building, the windows were open, allowing fresh air into a newspaper office packed with the sudden influx of journalists.

From the footpath below I could see their rolled-up shirt sleeves and recognised the faces of more than a few hacks from the nationals.

The staccato clacking of their typewriters – heartrending headlines, hastily compiled obituaries, eyewitness accounts of death and devastation – contrasted harshly with mournful singing from the church.

A nearby alley once offered access to the river where I’d often paddled my little boat and caught perch under the bridge at the cenotaph.

I’d regularly roller-skated along the footpath and in later years walked there with my first girlfriend.

As an excited child with my first camera I photographed the cenotaph parade in 1958, where Johnny Megaw died in 1987.

I remembered Johnny pushing his rickety old bicycle through the town, dressed in oversized, paint-splattered dungarees, his bicycle handlebars dangling with buckets of paint – on his way to decorate someone’s house.

I remembered his ad-hoc choir, singing hymns in hospital wards.

I played my trumpet in the same school concert where little Marie Wilson played her violin.

I bought chemicals for my childhood chemistry set in Mullan’s pharmacy.

“What does he want that for?” proprietor William Mullan asked one of his shop assistants after I’d requested another ounce of potassium permanganate.

I wanted it because it was beautifully bright-blue!

William and his wife Agnes died in the explosion.

Wesley and Bertha Armstrong attended the same church as I did when I was a lad and holidayed in the Sligo hotel where I worked during the summer of 1968.

Mr and Mrs Armstrong both died at the cenotaph.

Kit (Kitchener) Johnston was one of the hospital’s ambulance drivers where my father was a doctor.

Mr Johnston and his wife Jessie, a former nurse, died at the cenotaph.

So did former Second World War nurse Georgina Quinton whose son was my school chum.

Those I didn’t know of the 11 who died were Samuel Gault and Edward Armstrong.

The bomb’s 12th fatality, Ronnie Hill, died after spending 13 years in a coma. Today, as Enniskillen commemorates the saddest day in its uniquely distinctive history – remembering its fallen, at the cenotaph and on the cenotaph – I silently remember the folk I was privileged to know, and their loved ones, with Wordsworth’s “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”.

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