By Kevin J. Jones
Fifty years ago, the Bloody Sunday massacre resulted in many reactions: lies, anger, and a misplaced desire to forget the past, Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry said Friday. But only truth, remembrance, compassion, and forgiveness, through the grace of God, can overcome the legacy of the atrocity and other traumas in Northern Ireland.
“Tonight, we remember those who died and those who were scarred by their deaths. But we also remember those who risked everything as they went to help the injured,” McKeown said in his homily at the annual Mass for the victims of the 1972 massacre. “Some are here tonight, and others died on that January afternoon. We remember heroism and strength of character in those who sought and fought for the truth. And, as people of faith, we remember that there is more grace and goodness in the world than sin and evil.”
Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, became notorious when soldiers of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment shot unarmed Catholic civilians protesting the internment without trial of hundreds of suspected Irish Republican Army sympathizers, many of whom were innocent and detained on faulty information.
The soldiers fatally shot 14 people in Derry, a major city near the border of the Republic of Ireland. Photographers on the scene captured much of the action and the aftermath. One iconic film showed Father Edward Daly waving a white handkerchief as he led a group seeking to bring a dying man to safety.
While an initial government report had exonerated the soldiers, a 2010 report rejected the soldiers’ claims they had fired in response to attacks by firebombs or stone throwing. Many of the soldiers lied about their actions, the report found.
McKeown celebrated the Friday evening Mass at St. Mary’s Church in the Creggan area of Derry. The funerals for those who died had taken place at the same church almost 50 years ago. Many families of victims were present, as was Andrew Forster, the Church of Ireland’s Bishop of Derry and Raphoe.
“The shooting of 26 unarmed civilians in little more than 10 minutes – and the death of 14, including six who were under 18 years of age – was a trauma never to be forgotten,” McKeown said Jan. 28. “Tonight, we gather in faith as people have done here every year. In the Lord’s presence we are sensitive to where everybody is and to the still voice of God who speaks grace into pain and loss.”
“I hope that our celebrations this weekend will help us all to build a future full of hope for our young people and not nourish them on bitter anger that can only kills and destroy,” the bishop continued. “A new society on the island needs big hearts. It will not be created by small minds.”
The Catholic bishop welcomed the presence of Forster, the Anglican bishop, and praised the work of his peace-building predecessors and of other Protestant clergy. Some had made a point to reach out to victims’ families and were welcomed for it.
“They showed a way forward long before warring politicians would sit in the same room,” said McKeown.
His homily also discussed the change in the British government’s recognition of the facts, saying, “it took 38 years for an acknowledgment of what the families always knew to be true.”
“What might Jesus have to say to us to help us remember the loss of life and the loss of innocence that happened that Sunday afternoon?” McKeown asked.
“Jesus said that the truth will set you free,” he said. “Had truth been spoken that day and over the next weeks, so many lives and so much pain could have been spared.” The pain of families was multiplied because “truth is killed to protect the system.”
“Blatant lies were told. Campaigners were sometimes seen as obsessive. That put huge pressure on mental health and on relationships,” he continued. “Institutions – whether in state, church or non-state actors – tell stories of their own heroism. And that makes it very hard for them to admit the presence of sin in their ranks.”
“People are crushed when institutions or organisations lie to preserve their reputation,” said McKeown. “We still have much truth to discover about many other deaths. Many people still know truths that they are reluctant to share.”
More than 3,000 people were killed and tens of thousands of people were injured in the period known as The Troubles, from the late 1960s through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. There were riots, violent attacks, bombings, and retaliation from predominantly Protestant unionist and predominantly Catholic nationalist paramilitary groups, as well as involvement from the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force and the British military.
McKeown said the people deserve “an agreed system that creates space for the truth to be told about the thousands of unsolved murders.”
“Drawing a line under the past always suits those who have much to hide,” he continued. “Today we remember those whose lives were lost by brutal violence – and all those who suffered terribly because of the lies that were told.”
It is “very difficult” to find peace with the past, the bishop continued. “(O)ur societies struggle to know how they remember unsavoury chapters in their history. How do we deal with slavery and colonialism, the treatment of those who offended against society’s morals and the banishment of the poor to Australia for stealing food or a handkerchief?”
He rejected the idea that the “flames of rage” and the “fire of anger” will cleanse wounds. Similarly, he challenged the attitudes of those who “want to let sleeping dogs lie and prefer not to grapple with uncomfortable truths that might disturb our comfort in the present.”
Rather, the bishop endorsed a way that “seeks to acknowledge the past but to have compassion and forgiveness for those who were caught up in systems and situations that they can now look at with other eyes.”
“There is a grace-filled art in forgiving and remembering,” he said. “It takes a wise heart to look at the rubble of what has been shattered in the past and to make it into a foundation for the future. If all we do with the past is to use it as a heap of angry stones to throw at other people, then we cannot build.”
McKeown praised the “great dignity and courage” of the residents of Derry, saying they were often an example for Northern Ireland.
“The suffering endured has borne the seed of solidarity and not merely of anger,” he said. The dignity of the people means that we do not look like a post-conflict society. Music and community have enabled the population to be known for its welcome and great stories. This is a city that can look back with compassion on the past.”
“For it is a town that we all love so well,” said the bishop, alluding to the popular song of local singer-songwriter Phil Coulter.
St. Colmcille is traditionally the founder of Derry, and McKeown closed his homily with a prayer of the saint: “Be a bright light before me, O God, a guiding star above me. A smooth path below me a kindly shepherd behind me today, tonight and for ever.”
Among other events of the Troubles that have been revisited is the three-day 1971 incident in west Belfast known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. In May 2021 a new inquiry ruled that a Catholic priest, a mother of eight, and at least seven other civilians were wrongly killed by British soldiers in a climate of unrest and disorder after the introduction of internment without trial.
The inquiry resulted in an apology from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The U.K. government is considering an amnesty for military veterans of the Troubles, which would end any investigations into allegations of unlawful killings by state forces and paramilitary groups. Backers of the move portray it as a step to reconciliation, while some victims and their families have objected.