What does dead mean? Is he in heaven already?

Tony, at back right, plays up for the camera with his mum, Eileen, and brothers, ??? and sister ???
Tony, at back right, plays up for the camera with his mum, Eileen, and brothers, ??? and sister ???

In this, the first part of a poignant and evocative memoir from his childhood, Tony Doherty - whose father, Patrick, was among those murdered in the Bogside on Bloody Sunday - returns to the summer of 1971 and recalls the death of his Long Tower Primary School 
classmate Damien Harkin (9) who was killed when a British Army truck knocked him down at Westland Street. For the nine-year-old Tony, it was, as this personal chronicle reveals, a complicated and confusing time. It’s an abridged extract from a childhood 
memoir that Tony is currently writing for publication.

It was getting on in July and bonfire season was approaching.

Tony's father, Patrick, pictured on a family walk out the 'Line'.

Tony's father, Patrick, pictured on a family walk out the 'Line'.

Axes, hatchets and bow saws were sharpened in preparation for cutting the thick branches of the tree population out the ‘Line’. I wore a new, mint-green wool jumper.

Once out the Line, the jumper came off to reveal my white vest and I tore into the work with the rest of them. When we had finished cutting and chopping, I picked my new jumper up and it caught on barbed wire. After a sharp yank, it came free and I tied it around my waist and tethered myself to a thick trunk of new-cut timber and began the short pull back in the road towards home.

Upon returning to Hamilton Street, I put my jumper on again over my dirty vest and noticed an end line of wool sticking out from my side. Not realising the significance of this, I gave it a tug, made a wee hole, and another tug and the gap became larger.

Eventually, I was at our front door with a gaping hole in the jumper right across my belly. I stopped dead in my tracks and considered the consequences. What would happen to me? Would I get thumped or would I be kept in for a week? I needed more time to think and turned up towards Dooter McKinney’s house.

Tony Doherty.

Tony Doherty.

Upon reaching Dooter’s house, Maisie, the mother, was at the door talking to another neighbour. There was a grim look of shock on her face as she dragged on an Embassy Red.

“...and killed him stone dead,” she said.

“Oh, Jesus, Mary and St Joseph, they did not, did they?”, said the neighbour.

“Aye, ran right over him and left him on the road over in Westland Street. There’s murder over there. All the men are out,” said Maisie.

Tony Doherty in a family photo from his Confirmation Day in May 1971.

Tony Doherty in a family photo from his Confirmation Day in May 1971.

“Oh, Jesus preserve us this day!”, said the woman neighbour.

“Aye, ah know,” said Maisie. “God look to the wee boy’s mother and father. We’ll all be ready for Gransha if this keeps up”.

“Aye, the poor critter. We’ll be ready for Gransha surely. Our nerves will never hold out to it”.

I headed back down the street with a heavy heart. Who would be in - me ma or me da? What will I say? Will I cry first in the hope that I don’t get thumped? Will I run away?

Damien Harkin ( in the third row wearing glasses) with his classmates who made their Confirmation at St Columba's Church, Long Tower, in May 1971. A few rows behind him sits his friend Tony Doherty.

Damien Harkin ( in the third row wearing glasses) with his classmates who made their Confirmation at St Columba's Church, Long Tower, in May 1971. A few rows behind him sits his friend Tony Doherty.

By the time I reached the dark green door of 15 Hamilton Street, I had it worked out. The front door will be open and I’ll just run upstairs, take the jumper off and hide it in the press. Dead simple.

The dark green door was closed. “Oh, Jesus, what will I do?” I lifted the brass knocker and knocked on the door. After a few seconds, the door opened and me ma stood waiting for me to pass her. “I’ve a wile sore stomach, mammy,” I said, still holding my arm across my belly as I brushed passed and went upstairs. “Och, son, I’ll get you some Milk of Magnesia from the kitchen,” she said, appearing not to notice anything.

When I reached the landing, the jumper came off in one go and I opened the press on the landing and stashed it at the back, under bedclothes. I went to our bedroom and lifted a T-shirt and ran downstairs.

“I thought you said you had a sore stomach, Tony? Did you change your clothes?,” asked me ma.

“Oh, I have mammy,” I said, with my arm across my belly. “It started getting sore out the Line”.

“C’mon over here, son, and take some of this,” she said, with the blue bottle in her hand.

Patrick Doherty and baby.

Patrick Doherty and baby.

The next morning, me da woke me up. “Tony, get up out of bed and come downstairs,” he said as he went downstairs himself. As I awoke, I realised that he hadn’t woke anyone else. They were still asleep in their beds.

Before I took the stairs, I noticed that the press door on the landing had been opened but I hadn’t the nerve to look in. “I’m caught here, so am are,” I said, as I slowly descended. The fire was lit despite the summer being hot of late and had been going for a few hours. Me da was in the scullery as I eyed him through the door to see if he was in angry mood. There was no sign of the jumper.

“How many boiled eggs do you want, Tony, one or two?,” he asked, not turning round from the cooker.

“What’s he at?”, I said to myself. “If I’m caught, I’m caught. Gone just get on with it, will ye!”

“I’ll take two, daddy,” I said, trying to catch his eye but he still hadn’t turned around yet. I sat down at the table already set with a cup, a plate and spoon.

“I hear yous were out the Line chopping for the bonfire last night,” he said.

“Aye, we were all out. We chopped a wile pile of wood and dragged it all back in the road. It was class, so it was.”

“Your mammy tells me you had a wile sore stomach when you came back in. Is that right?”, he asked.

“Aye, it was wile sore, so it was, but me mammy gave me medicine and it went away. I’m good at taking medicine, aren’t I daddy?”

“You are surely, Tony. You’re good at taking your medicine and your oil”, he confirmed.

“Aye, I am daddy, so am are”, I replied, slightly worried at the “taking your oil” bit.

When the boiled eggs were done, he brought them over in their eggcups along with two rounds of warm toast. “There you go, son. Eat up,” he said as he placed the breakfast before me, the eggcups resting between the gold-browned fingers he got from smoking Park Drive. This was the first time I saw his face since I came down and he was annoyed. “Did he discover the jumper?”, I wondered, as I dipped my egg soldier into the perfectly cooked and salted egg. “Why is everyone else still in bed and only me at the breakfast table”?

The tea-pot was steaming from its long spout on the cooker. Daddy lifted it and poured the tea into my cup and then his. There was a glass sugar bowl on the table. He lifted the spoon to sugar the tea. “I don’t take sugar in my tea any more, daddy,” I said, looking up at his face. “I gave it up for Lent this year and now I canny stand tea wi’ sugar”.

“Oh, I remember now. You’ll be giving up milk in your tea next Lent, will you?”, he asked, looking at me for the first time. He didn’t take either sugar or milk in his.

“I don’t know, daddy. I think I like the milk more than the sugar”, I said back to him.

With his own cup of black tea in one hand and a Park Drive in the other, he sat down across the table. His pale blue eyes were both searching and shifty. He had something bothering him. I said nothing further, afraid that, if we talked at all, he would eventually mention the jumper. The radio was on in the sitting room. It eased the silence and the coals in the fire crackled and hissed their gasses.

After a while, he got up and went into the sitting room. I heard the rustle of paper behind me as my back was to the sitting room door. “Are you finished, Tony? he said. “Aye, daddy, that was great”, I replied, as I knew something was coming next. “C’mon in here a wee minute, I have to show you something”, he said.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, I’m caught!”, I screamed into myself.

I got up from the table and went through the door, still searching his face. He held his Park Drive between his smoking fingers on one hand. In the other he held a newspaper, folded column-like, with only one section visible. “Is he goin to whack me over the head with it? All for an oul jumper? For Jesus’ sake! I should’ve owned up and spared myself all this carry-on!”

“I have to show you something, Tony” he said, turning the newspaper towards me. “What has this got to do with the jumper?”, I asked myself. “What’s he at?”

I found myself staring at a boy’s face, bespectacled, black, white and pious-looking. It was a picture of my classmate, Damien Harkin, from the Bog. This was his Confirmation photo from a few weeks earlier.

“Do you know this wee boy, Tony?”

“Aye, daddy, I do. That’s Damien Harkin from our class. What did he do to get in the paper?”, I asked, not having read the headline.

“He’s dead, Tony. He was killed by a three-tonner army lorry last night in Westland Street, near his house. Did you play with him at school?”, he asked.

“Aye, I hang around with him, Micky Griffiths and wee Damien Healy”.

He searched my face for a few seconds. “We’ll have to go to Mass and say a special prayer for him and his mammy, daddy, sisters and brothers. Go’n get your face washed, you have a black ring round your neck. And put on something decent. Maybe your new jumper?”

I looked up suddenly at me da to see if there was more to be said. He looked back, turned away and sat down on the sofa and began reading the newspaper. I went into the bathroom, washed my face and looked in the mirror. There were still dirt marks from the night before so I used the soap. I couldn’t stretch up far enough to see the ring round my neck.

“What does dead mean? Is he in heaven already?,” I thought to myself. The only deaths I knew were the fluke we caught out the line or the rats that Dandy McKinney, Dooter McKinney’s dog, caught. “Damien Harkin dead! And the British Army did it!”

n See part two of Tony Doherty’s memoir in next Friday’s edition.