Derry man recalls family’s close call during 1973 Brandywell bomb blast
A Derry man has recalled how he and his family narrowly escaped being killed when a booby-trap bomb went off close to their Brandywell home in 1973 weeks after the killing of an Irish army soldier on the same street.
Tommy Mullan, a community worker in Galliagh, was one of 11 children who were raised at number 6 Brandywell Avenue and his late mother Dorothy was a witness to the shooting of Robert McGuinness on June 22, 1973 outside their home.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Mullan and his family came close to death when a bomb exploded across the street and a soldier threatened to shoot him as he ran to see if his parents and ten siblings were OK.
Recalling the episode, Mr Mullan said one devout neighbour had a miraculous escape in the July 1973 blast.
Mr Mullan, whose father Thomas spoke to the Journal at the time about being forced to stay in their bomb-damaged home due to a major housing shortage, said: “The bomb went off at a house across the street. Mickey Cowley, who was a great old gentleman, had lived in the house but had passed away before this and he was the last of the family to die, so the house was lying empty.
“Susan McDaid who lived next door used to say 13 Rosaries every night before she went to bed. She laid down in the front room because she was afraid to go up the stairs. That morning, about 6am in the morning, I heard the bang and when I went round the corner, Mickey Cowley’s house was gone completely. Susan’s house was badly damaged. Our house was across the street and the army stated that only because of the Saracen, the jeep and my father’s car - it would have taken the bottom of our house. He said, ‘We wouldn’t have to worry about yous’.”
Mr Mullan, who was married with a young family, lived around the corner in the next street and upon hearing the blast rushed to see if his parents and siblings were OK.
“There was a soldier lying at our gable and, to me, one of his arms was gone. The army at that stage, between them and the IRA, they weren’t divulging how many people were dying. Our window was blown out. The door was blown off, and my father shouted at me to go over and get Susan out of her house. I go to go over and this soldier comes running at me. He stuck a rifle into my belly and said, ‘I’ll blow you away you Irish so-an-so’. And only for another soldier who grabbed him by the neck and pulled him off me and said, ‘Look he’s only round to see his family’ I would have been shot. That soldier saved my life that morning.
“I went up the street to get help. The people there that morning were Danny Feeney, who was an SDLP Councillor, Tommy McCann who owned the fish and chip shop, God rest him, and other people who had heard the bomb going off.
“Two soldiers were at the top and said there’s nobody going down that street. Tommy said to them, ‘I’m going to tell you something now - you can shoot me in the back, but I am going down to get that woman out’. Tommy went down, took one of the wooden beams blown out of the house, put it up on the window sill and brought Susan out. When the army doctor came in he couldn’t believe that Susan McDaid came out of that house without a scratch. And the part where she lay was untouched, including the statue of Our Lady. They couldn’t get over it. Maybe it was a miracle.”
Army reinforcements arrived shortly afterwards, Mr Mullan said, with soldiers from the Duke of the Wellington Regiment with their feathered berets.
Reaching his parents’ house, Tommy noticed a beret lying in the middle of their bomb damaged sitting room.
“I said to my father ‘don’t touch that’ and I called the officer in charge and told him, ‘there’s a beret lying there’, in case there was an army raid and a beret was found in our house. He said, ‘Oh that’s one of our chaps’, and that’s when he told my mother and father, ‘Only because of the Saracen, the jeep and your car, the bottom of your house would have been blown up. You would have lost your lives’.”
The Mullans were forced to remain in their damaged home for the next eight months.
“That morning I stood there and there were politicians saying, ‘this is an emergency’ and ‘you’ll be out of here for five o’clock tonight’, which didn’t happen. For eight months my parents couldn’t light a fire because the wooden beams had moved in the bomb and it could have burnt the house down. That Christmas the water was running down the walls because of it.”
After eight months, with the assistance of Councillor Marlene Jefferson and Jackie Allen, the family were finally moved to Corporation Street. But the weekly police raids on their home, which had been happening for some time, continued after the move until Mrs Mullan took action.
“It was nearly every week. They’d have come in and busted the doors,” Mr Mullan recalled. “My mother said, ‘I’ve had enough of this’ and she went to see the Chief Superintendant Frank Lagan.
“Within a couple of days he said, ‘I’ll do my best’, and he came to our house and told my mother and father there would be no more raids, and to be truthful there were no more.”
Weeks prior to the bomb explosion which resulted in the move, he said, his mother had been standing at her front door when 20-year-old Robert McGuinness was shot. The young Derry man died four days later from his injuries.
“Robert had been home to see his mother who wasn’t keeping well,” Mr Mullan recalled. “The next day he was to go back to his Regiment. Robert was going down the street to his house and they said he was carrying a gun.
“I said to my mother, ‘What happened?’ and she said there was a few boys at the top of the street and they shouted a few things and the next thing Robert was shot in the middle of the street behind a Saracen. He had no gun. My mother said he was completely innocent. She was standing at the door and was the closest to him. The Irish government did nothing. There should have been an Inquiry. That soldier that shot him could have been standing beside him in Lebanon at that time.”
Mr Mullan said that despite the Troubles unfolding on their doorstep, there remained a great sense of community in the Brandywell.
“I worked in Ira Scott’s and I drove the lorry through the Bog, bombs, bullets flying, you name it. And you don’t think about your own life. That morning when the bomb went off I didn’t think about my life at all. All I was thinking about was my mother and father and the ten children in the house.
“Growing up we had a great time in the Brandywell, great neighbours, every door was left open. I remember my mother getting us ready to go up to see the burning of Lundy and there would have been more Catholics there than Protestants, because in them days you had big families in the Brandywell and we all got on great and there was no antisocial behaviour. My mother was born in the Brandywell and she was Presbyterian. She ran around with the wee girls in the street and when they went to Mass she went with them. She was reared with her granny and her aunt and they all turned to be Catholic. I asked her ‘did anybody ever call you names?’
“She went to school at First Derry and when she would have been coming down the Dark Lane people would have called her ‘Catholic Dick’ - little did they know she was a Protestant. There were about six families that lived in the Brandywell, nobody knew the difference and we all lived together. They were very happy years. We had a happy family. The mother and father always made sure there was food on the table. I worked in a Protestant firm and we all got on.”
Mr Mullan said it was important to acknowledge the role of four ‘peacemakers’ who were ever present on the streets of the Brandywell at the time and who were determined to do what they could to keep people safe. He sometimes accompanied them himself.
“Danny Feeney, Liam Bradley, Fr Denis Bradley and the deceased Father Tom O’Gara were on the streets night and day. They were the real peacemakers,” he said.
Mr Mullan and his own young family moved to the then new Galliagh estate on the outskirts of Derry in 1978.
“There were no soldiers on the streets. You got the feeling you were away in Australia!”