He can’t be dead - we were at school only weeks ago

Damien Harkin, pictured front left, on a day out with his parents, Lily and Eddie, in the late 1960s.
Damien Harkin, pictured front left, on a day out with his parents, Lily and Eddie, in the late 1960s.

In this, the second instalment of his personal memoir from the summer of 1971, Tony Doherty looks back on the death of his school pal Damien Harkin (9) who was knocked down and killed by a British Army truck in the Bogside. In this extract, a nine year-old Tony accompanies his father, Patrick, to Long Tower Church to pray for his young friend. The entire chronicle is swept along in a powerful narrative that effortlessly evokes the sights and sounds of a city from another lifetime. It’s an abridged extract from a childhood memoir that 
Tony is currently writing for publication.

As I climbed the stairs, I mused that, we children, have no-one to fight with as the soldiers are all big and the odds against us are impossible. Maybe if there was a British Army made up of children! They wouldn’t stand a chance with Louis McKinney or Davy Barbour - they would flatten the wee limeys! I went back to the bedroom. As everyone was still asleep, I silently sought out my Sunday clothes, slipped them on and tip-toed out of the room and downstairs.

Hamilton Street is where Tony Doherty lived in the early 1970s. Photo: Eamon Melaugh.

Hamilton Street is where Tony Doherty lived in the early 1970s. Photo: Eamon Melaugh.

“Put the fire-guard on the fire, Tony”, me da called in a low pitch from upstairs. I did as I was bid, met me da as he came downstairs and went out the door.

We walked along Hamilton Street. There were soldiers at the foot of the street but they kept their distance. As it was around 9 O’clock on this hot summer morning, the streets were barely alive. All the front doors were closed. The bleach-scrubbed arcs that the women cleaned on their knees from their front doors out to the footpath were lilac-white and serene.

Melaugh’s shop was closed. Mr Melaugh was at his door and me da said hello, tilting his head in a nod, and Mr Melaugh said, ‘Hello, Patsy’, tilting his head to nod back, and we kept walking, towards Quarry Street and past the Lourdes Hall. The Grotto next to it was resplendent in the summer sun, with its walls brightly white-washed and its array of flowers up early to salute the morning.

Me da glanced up at Our Lady and blessed himself without breaking his stride. I did the same. We passed the Brandywell Bar on the corner and headed towards Hogg’s Folly and the Long Tower Chapel.

Tony Doherty pictured in the mid-1970s.

Tony Doherty pictured in the mid-1970s.

As we crossed the road at Charlotte Street, the smell of gas, burnt diesel and rubber from the previous evening’s riot drifted up from the Bog through the early morning heat. Crossing the road meant dodging the previous evening’s legacy of broken glass, lumps of red brick and plastic tops from CS Gas canisters fired by the army.

The outside heat turned cool inside the chapel and the priest allowed the side and back doors to remain open to create a cooling draught. We sat down in the main body of the chapel behind the front pews, with me on the inside. Me da’s two muckers, Eddie Miller and Tony Callaghan, whom we met at the door, sat beside him. I was hoping not to get on the inside as, on the oak-panelled walls running parallel along the long row of pews, there are perforated panels through which, if you look hard and long enough, you can see where dead people are kept. Why do they keep the dead in dark places, where people have to come and pray? Is there enough room in there for everybody? Is this where Damien Harkin is going to end up? In the dark forever? Is this where I will end up? How can he be dead when we were in class together only a few weeks ago? What are his ma and da goin’ to do without him?

“Hi boy, stand up!”, me da’s lowered voice in my ear shook me out of my dark questioning and I stood up red-faced as people around were looking. The whole chapel had been standing except for me and there was a right crowd in attendance for 9 O’clock Mass. “I didn’t bring you up here to sleep!”.

The Mass continued and I went through the motions. The questioning wouldn’t leave my head. I prayed for Damien Harkin, for his mammy, daddy, sisters and brothers. I didn’t know if he had any sisters and brothers but the order of the day was to pray for them.

Patrick Doherty and kids enjoying a family day out to the seaside in the early 1970s.

Patrick Doherty and kids enjoying a family day out to the seaside in the early 1970s.

“Were you at confession this week?”, me da asked as he got up. “No, we didn’t go yet. Me ma said that we would go the next night”, I replied. “OK, kneel you there”, he said.

Up he got with Eddie and Tony and joined the queue for Holy Communion. I watched him as he walked towards the altar with his hands joined in front of him and his head down. The queue was long but not that long and, after a few minutes, he was at the altar. He raised his head only as the priest placed the unleavened bread on his out-stretched tongue and then blessed himself after the priest proclaimed, “Body of Christ”.

As he came back, he kept his hands joined together and his eyes fixed on the floor before him. I looked at him coming towards the pew, passing other communicants shuffling awkwardly sideways on the pews to make way. As he was about to sit down, he suddenly glanced at me and, with a playful wink of his eye, he said: “I am cleansed now”, before turning away back to his devotions.

As the priest finished Mass, everyone stood to allow him to leave the chapel and then began to shuffle towards the doors. Me da didn’t move and neither did Eddie or Tony. When everyone had left, me da put his hand in his pocket and brought out an assortment of coins. “Take a shilling out of that”, he said, offering me his money-filled hand. “You will have to buy a blissid candle for your wee mucker, Damien, to help him on his way up to Heaven”, he said. “Away you go. We’ll wait here for you”.

I plucked a shilling out of his hand and moved across the pew past him, Eddie and Tony. They all held my eyes as I passed on the thin beam towards the end of the pew. “Daddy, I’ve never bought a blissid candle before; I don’t know what to do”, I said. “Go’n you up way him, Patsy, the critter - he has to learn”, said Eddie. Me da made his way across the pew with the other two following.

He grabbed my hand and we walked up the central aisle of the chapel towards the altar where he promptly opened the ornate brass gate and both of us glided silently up the off-white marble steps to the lit-candle display to the left.

“What’s the shilling for, Daddy? I asked. “You pay for your candles, son. Put your money in the box there in front of you,” he said, pointing to the slot in the brass plate. The shilling crunched on other coins as it fell through the slot. “The candles are there in the wee hatch”, he said pointing.

I slipped my hand into the hatch and lifted out a white candle, held it over a lit candle until it caught and shoved it into an empty slot. Following me da’s lead, I blessed myself and knelt down beside him before the bright candle display. After a minute, we made our way back from the altar to where Eddie and Tony were sitting on the front row.

Out we went again to the sunshine and made our way back down the Folly. Eddie and Tony said “Churrio!” at the bottom of the street and on we went, past the long wall holding in the grounds of the Christian Brothers’ School on Lecky Road.

The whiteness of the approaching Grotto stood in beautiful contrast to the cement grey of the school wall. As we passed the gate, me da suddenly stopped and, looking up at the statue, said: “If you were to go to confession, Tony, what would you tell the priest?”

“I don’t know daddy, ahm.....” Usually, by the time you reached the confessional door, the list of sins would be rhymed off: I stole sweets from my sister. I busted Dooter McKinney’s ball for badness. I thumped Gutsy McGonagle for calling me names...

I looked up into his black moustachioed and side-burned face as he looked down at me. I had no time to think of a list. “Daddy, I took God’s name in vain, but only into meself, last night and this morning and I had hatred in my heart for the soldiers who killed Damien Harkin. That’s wrong, isn’t it, Daddy?”

“It is son. Hatred eats at your heart. Wee Damien’s death is a terrible thing, but hatred isn’t goin’ to bring him back. You have to pray for him jist. That’s all you do... So what’s this about taking God’s name in vain last night? What happened - did you hurt yourself out the Line or what?”, he asked with a playful smile.

“I tore me new jumper. I didn’t mean to, Daddy. I took God’s name in vain when I thought I was goin’ to get caught”, I replied. “Am I goin’ to get kept in, Daddy?”

“I know about the new jumper, Tony. Your mammy found it last night stashed in the press upstairs,” he said, taking my hands in his and getting down on his hunkers to my level. “But you have enough going on in your head at the minute. Forget about the oul jumper”.

And with that, we walked, small hand in huge hand, in the mid-morning sun back past Quarry Street, and along Hamilton Street towards our green door. Number 15.

Copyright: Tony Doherty 2014