On the eve of the funerals of 11 of the victims of Bloody Sunday, Father George McLaughlin stood at the door of St. Mary’s Church, and watched as one by one the coffins were brought into the Creggan Chapel.
The iconic picture of the scene depicts one of the darkest moments in Derry’s history.
Those days and the images that unfolded have remained with Father George throughout his 60 years as a priest.
It’s a ministry that has placed him at the centre of some of the most troubled times in Derry and Donegal including Bloody Sunday and the search for the lost ‘Carrickatine’ fishing trawler at Greencastle.
Today marks exactly six decades since the Buncrana born priest was ordained by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Over the past 60 years he’s heard thousands of Confessions; conducted hundreds of marriage ceremonies and held the hand of countless people during their final moments when issuing the last rites.
“I’ve no regrets,” said Father George, who is now 84. “I was happy in every parish I served in. I enjoyed the life and working with people. It was good and I was happy.”
From an early age George McLaughlin had received a calling to the priesthood, but it was in his final year of school he decided to take the Bishop’s Exam to see if he could get to Maynooth.
“I remember the day I left home,” he recalled. “January 20th, 1949. I studied English and Philosophy for my degree and then we had the Theology side of things. In those days we didn’t go out and work in the parishes like the deacons do now. Your first day working as a priest was the day you were appointed to a parish,
“My Ordination took place on June 17th, 1956 and 68 of us were ordained that morning. It was a big event and the whole family came down, including my mother and father, Winnie and John and my six brothers.
“My first parish was the Holy Rosary on the Ormeau Road in Belfast and I was there for a year. I got a call to say a priest had died suddenly and they needed me there straight away. I enjoyed my time there.”
Father George then moved back to the Derry Diocese to serve in Strabane.
“In those days priests didn’t retire. I was brought in to help an older parish priest there, he was a great oul fellow. A year later, in 1958, I transferred to the Long Tower where I stayed until the following May, the day St. Mary’s Church in Creggan was opened.
“On May 31st I received a message from the Bishop that I was to go to Creggan. I was the first priest in St. Mary’s alongside Father Rooney. I stayed there for 20 years.”
His two decades in Creggan saw Father George live through the worst of the ‘Troubles.’
“Creggan was lovely at the beginning,” he declared.
“Families were young and people were enthusiastic, we were getting new schools, a new hall, the new church and everyone was enjoying it.
“That was until the second half of the ‘60s when things began to go wrong and it was tough enough for a number of years.
“As the local priest I would have been called to all sorts of places at all sorts of hours, it was what you were there for and if you could help, you wanted to.
“There were some terribly sad times including ‘Bloody Sunday’ and the funerals of the victims in Creggan.
“I can still remember the sight of the coffins in the church.
“The families were devastated. It was very sad. It took the whole place a long, long time to recover, if it ever really recovered.
“It’s all part of history but the memories of ‘Bloody Sunday’ and the funerals will never leave me.
“That day I marched from Creggan to Rossville Street and we had gathered around the new flats.
“The first shot that was fired struck a young fellow from Creggan Heights who stood very close to me.
“The second shot hit an old man named Johnson, who was standing a wee bit further away, he died one month later.
“We attended the inquiries and gave evidence but we were not listened to at all.
“Years later I gave evidence to the Saville Inquiry. I wasn’t in Derry when the Report was published but the news was good. It had taken years and I never thought the truth would come because everything used to be covered over.”
In 1978 Father George was moved to the parish of St. Patrick’s in Pennyburn.
“After the ‘Troubles’ I was happy enough to move to Pennyburn.
“It was a different parish and I liked Pennyburn Church. I spent nine years there before I returned to my native Inishowen, to the Moville Parish.
“It was lovely in Inishowen, a lovely situation by the river and there are such friendly people.”
But the tragedy of the ‘Carrickatine,’ Fr. George added, was an episode in the peninsula’s history that will never leave him.
“The loss of the ‘Carrickatine’ in 1995 was very tough. Six men and the boat were lost and nothing was ever found despite years of searching.
“Families were grieved by the fact that they didn’t have funerals. That they were not able to bury their dead made it worse. It affected the families for years and is still affecting them.”
Nine years ago Fr. George retired to Greencastle, but still helps out at weekend Masses and assists when other priests go on holiday.
“I was happy to retire. I was happy in every parish I’ve worked in. I enjoyed the life and working with the people. I’ve been blessed with good health and I was always a hard worker.
“The church is very different now, there are not the same crowds at Mass.
“That’s sad, because maybe not as many people are thinking about God. I tell the younger priests how we heard Confessions from 6pm. to 10pm. on a Friday night, on Saturday from 11am to 2pm. and again on Saturday evening from 6-10pm. You were not, one hundred percent, occupied all the time but there were weeks you would be looking to get out for a smoke half way through and you couldn’t.”
Fr. George will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his Ordination with a Mass in St Pius X Church, in Moville, tonight at 7.30 p.m. followed by refreshments in the community centre.