Family still hurting 40 years after Official IRA booby trap killings

46 year-old John Dunn who was killed in an Official IRA bomb attack at Ebrington barracks. (0701MM20)
46 year-old John Dunn who was killed in an Official IRA bomb attack at Ebrington barracks. (0701MM20)

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the deaths of two local people who were killed in an Official IRA bomb attack in the Waterside in 1974.

Forty-six years-old John Dunn, from the Creggan area of Derry, and 53-year-old Cecilia Byrne, originally from Malin, were killed when a bomb attached to the car they were driving exploded at the junction of Limavady Road and May Street shortly after it left the British Army barracks at Ebrington. Both were civilian employees at the barracks.

Members of the Dunn family follow the funeral cortege of John Dunn. From left, Daniel, John's father, and Eugene, Donal, Carol, Kathleen, Margaret, Martin and John. (0701MM21)

Members of the Dunn family follow the funeral cortege of John Dunn. From left, Daniel, John's father, and Eugene, Donal, Carol, Kathleen, Margaret, Martin and John. (0701MM21)

It is believed the bomb had been attached to Mr Dunn’s car while it was parked outside his home in Creggan the night before the explosion.

Mr Dunn had been giving Mrs Byrne a driving lesson during their lunch break when the bomb exploded.

No group claimed responsibility for the bomb attack at the time and the Provisional IRA issued a public statement denying it was involved.

In 1999, after a public appeal from the Dunn family, the Official IRA eventually said it was responsible.

Mr Dunn had six children, four sons and two daughters, the youngest of which was just 14 years-old.

Donal Dunn, son of John Dunn, said his family have never got over the loss of their father and could not even talk about it until recently.

Donal was 19-years-old at the time and also a civilian employee at the barracks. He was at work on the time of the explosion and heard the blast. “I was a maintenance worker and was up a ladder fixing a window when I heard the explosion,” he recalled.

“I did not know what had happened at that stage. I could see the car but I still didn’t realise what had happened. Then two detectives approached me and asked me to come with them to answer some questions. At that stage they showed me my father’s driving licence and asked me to go and identify his body. It was totally awful.

“People were speaking to me and I could hear what they were saying but it was all a blur,” he said.

Donal then had to go back to the family home in Creggan and tell his mother and brothers and sisters what had happened.

“It was an awful journey. I knew I had to go home and tell them what happened.”

Donal said the aftermath of his father’s killing had a devastating impact on his family.

“The suddenness and violence of daddy’s death was particularly hard to deal with. We lived in Eastway and had great neighbours but we kept our grief very much to ourselves.

“The difficult thing to deal with was the fact that someone came to our home, possibly someone from the community, and planted the bomb under the car. It could have been anybody.

“Some people may also have felt he was a legitimate target because he worked at the barracks and that was also hard to take; that some would try to justify it.

“He was a hard-working man who lived for his family and loved sport. He worked there because it was a pensionable job and those were hard to come by at the time.”

Donal said the ongoing conflict also compounded the family’s grief.

“Things were totally different back then. There was no such thing as counselling and we just had to get on with things. We never even talked about it as a family. My mother worked hard for the family and we didn’t want to upset her by talking about it.”

The Derry man said it was his mother’s death three years ago that led him to start talking to his siblings about what happened.

“It doesn’t seem like 40 years ago to us. Maybe that’s because we didn’t talk about it but the hurt and the pain was always there,” he added.

Donal encouraged anyone dealing with pain and suffering from the conflict to seek help.

“There are many people out there who have lost people and they are sitting in their own homes hurting and in pain. Back then it wasn’t recognised but today there is help out there. We carried our hurt inside for decades and I know it had a major impact on my health as I suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. After my mother’s death I reached out and spoke to people about it and it helped.

“I would encouraged anyone in pain, no matter how long ago the hurt happened, to seek help and speak to someone. That is the first step.”

Donal has said that while the transformation of Ebrington is positive, he has mixed emotions when he visits the site.

“We could see Ebrington from our home but we could never get inside. Now it is open and I think the Peace Bridge is fantastic but I still feel the hurt every time I go there. It was closed off for so long and the bridge has given it back to the city,” he said.

Donal also said he would like his father, and others who lost their lives in the former barracks, to be acknowledged at the site.

“I would like to see something simple, like a tree, planted there in memory of my father and Mrs Byrne and the others who died there. There doesn’t have to be a plaque or anything big, just something simple. I know it is a shared space but in moving on we also have to acknowledge the history.