Community Relations Week is happening next week, and a theme is how the experience of those who’ve been bereaved or wounded in the ‘Troubles’ affects our society today. Here JEAN HEGARTY tells her story.
On 30th January 1972, I was a young working mother who lived three thousand miles away from Derry.
In Toronto, like Derry, it was a bright sunny winter’s day. I spent the afternoon ice-skating on the local rink. (And skating with a small child is a great way to learn to skate - it makes you look a dutiful mother while you are really just inching your way along because ice skating is totally foreign to you).
I remember coming home to see the news on television saying gunmen and bombers were shot during riots in Derry. I did think “Oh my god, that is DERRY,” but never in my dreams did my brother or indeed anyone I knew enter my head. I didn’t know any gunmen or bombers.
I went to bed that night not knowing what my family in Derry were going through. Next morning came that early morning phone call that every emigrant dreads - you know something is wrong if you get a call during the night or early morning.
My aunt Eva was on the phone and my memory is that intuitively I knew it was Kevin and when she stumbled trying to tell me, I asked what happened to Kevin? My mother had asked them not to call me right away. She knew that having just bought our first house that December, every cent had gone into the down payment and I didn’t have the money to come home. Thankfully, I worked for a German freight forwarding company who also had a travel agency and they organised my flight, telling me we’d sort it out later.
I travelled home in a daze, only to be met at Prestwick Airport by Kevin’s photo on every newspaper on the newsstands, along with all the others. I broke down . . .
I arrived in Derry on the 1st of February, the day before the funerals, and my time here in Feb ’72 is mostly a blur, with just one or two distinct memories - I don’t even remember how long I was here, a week or two weeks. I remember my mother’s disbelief that it was Kevin. “It doesn’t even look like him,” she said.
I also have a hazy memory of my wee brother’s removal to St. Mary’s Church the night I arrived and the flowers in the boot of a funeral car driving us to Creggan on the morning of the funeral. I remember my father, everything about him, as I leaned forward in the church pew to see how my mother was doing. My father, at that moment, remains imprinted on my mind. My thoughts were of a beaten man before me and I knew that I could never do that to another human being.
The reason I knew this was because, in the blur that was my flight home, I had plotted revenge on the soldier who had killed Kevin. I had wild fantasies, believing that whatever it took - I would do it. But seeing that figure of a grieving man, my father, changed all that. I was not capable of inflicting that pain on another parent - and that soldier had parents, just like our Kevin had.
I have always been grateful for that glance across the pew in St Mary’s and I realise the benefit that moment has had on me all of my life since.
I was in the Guildhall on 15th June 2010 for the publication of the Saville Report as my father lay in Altnagelvin Hospital, my niece keeping him company. My brother, sisters and I were at the Guildhall. My brother had travelled over from England and one of my sisters, from Canada. Such was the importance of that day to our family.
I truly didn’t expect such a magnanimous apology and it is impossible to try and describe the feeling I had upon hearing those words – “Innocent”, “Unjustified and unjustifiable”.
If governments and organisations could only experience those feelings, I think this world could experience a whole new beginning.
This small corner of the universe has experienced such a lot of pain and we are so looking forward to putting the past behind us. Living here we are like small children learning to cross the road. Looking in every direction, left, right, left right, but just like those children, eventually we need to step off that footpath and move forward.