Lifestyle & Belief

Memories of Northern Ireland's Omagh bombing linger 15 years later


Omagh town centre is packed to capacity on August 15, 1999 as the town's people attend a service to mark the first anniversary of Northern Ireland's worst single terrorist incident which killed 29 people and wounded some 250. The remembrance took place in a mood marred by overnight rioting and pessimism over the peace process.


Paul Faith

LONDON — Fifteen years ago today, 29 people were killed and 200 injured when a bomb exploded in the heart of Omagh, a market town of 20,000 in Northern Ireland.

Depending on how you look at it, Omagh was the worst single mass killing in Northern Ireland's Troubles, or, the worst atrocity in the province's new era of peace. The Good Friday Agreement — which was meant to end the conflict — had only been ratified three months earlier.

Either way, just counting the numbers doesn't begin to describe the human and physical wreckage wrought by this useless act of terror. The bomb went off in Omagh's business district at 3 p.m. on the busiest Saturday of the year — when parents and children shop for the upcoming school term. The dead included six children, six teenagers and a pregnant woman.

By the time I arrived the next morning the area devastated by the 500-pound car bomb was sealed off, a massive crime scene.

It was at the hospital, though, that the real devastation could be seen. It was written on the face of families as they tried to take in the news that their children and parents had not survived — or if they had, just how badly they had been hurt.

There were hundreds of reporters all around, but I remember how subdued we were. The people of Omagh, still in shock, were bearing this terrible event with extraordinary stoicism. We were slightly awed. 

But there was another thing. Omagh didn't feel foreign. Different, but not foreign, the way the Middle East or the Balkans is foreign. It was a place very similar to those many of us came from. Middle class for the most part. The shopping interrupted that day was the kind of shopping we did. The unfinished thought was that this was the sort of thing could happen to us.

The anniversary has been marked by a non-denominational service of remembrance. Almost inevitably, it has also been an occasion for the families of the dead to demand justice — yet again. No one has ever been convicted of the crime. A dissident republican group, the Real IRA, is acknowledged to have carried it out.

It is also a chance to re-learn one of the deeper lessons of the Northern Irish conflict and its resolution.

"We're prisoners of history, more than prisoners of religion," says Michael Gallagher, head of the Omagh Support & Self Help Group

Gallagher speaks with painfully acquired authority. His only child, Aidan, died in the blast. Fourteen years earlier his brother Hugh, a British security officer, was killed by the IRA. 

He also speaks with insight into the nature of the modern wars of religion which afflict so much of the globe.

Religion is just one part of a person's identity, among others like nationality and ethnicity. Wherever you find "religious" conflict in the modern world, the odds are it is because politicians are using the religious aspect of personal identity to gain power. Think of that the next time you read about the Sunni-Shia conflict. Ask yourself, what do the politicians get out of fanning this kind of sectarian warfare?

"Politicians have exploited religion here. They have focused on that aspect of people and created a tribalized identity," Gallagher explains. 

For reporters covering the conflict, Northern Ireland was most easily explained along sectarian fault lines — but the modern Troubles didn't grow out of theological argument.

"We are Protestants, we support the UK, We are Catholics, we support Ireland," summarizes Gallagher. That isn't a split that grows out of disputes over the pope's authority. It is politics with religious identity used as a way to build a power base. 

The danger for any society whose politicians play the religious card is that religion is arguably the most volatile component of identity. Religious belief has a unique power in human experience. It is a power that can used for evil or good.

Politicians seeking to gain or maintain power who unleash religious hatreds can never know when those fires will burn out.

But when used for good, the power of religion has profound healing properties. Faith is what got Omagh through — and its example allowed the Good Friday Agreement to take root.

Three days after the bombings the funerals began. The first Catholic one was in St. Macartan's in Augher, a tiny hamlet a little way outside Omagh. 

Avril Monaghan, her 18-month-old daughter, Maura, and her mother, Mary Grimes, were all killed. Avril was eight months pregnant.

A press area was set up over the road in a farmyard with a small speaker piping in the sound of the service.

But I needed to record the service and snuck into the crowd of mourners. All the positive power of belief enveloped the scene. A shocked community pooled its strength to hold up the living members of the family, help them find the strength to shoulder the coffins and take them down the hill from the church to where the women were buried.

I stood discreetly in the overflow of worshipers outside the church trying to be invisible, not to interfere, but I was spotted. In similar situations I had been confronted for crossing a line and intruding on people mourning, yet when the priest called on the congregation to give a sign of peace to each other, people shook my hand and said God Bless you to me, enveloped me into their community. 

I have not been back to Northern Ireland since that day. I asked Michael Gallagher to describe what Omagh looks like today. There are two memorials to the dead, he told me, but other than that the town has been restored.

"There are no physical scars to remind you it was a bomb site," Gallagher said. "The buildings have all been rebuilt. It's a busy, bustling town."

Then he added, "Until you scratch the surface. The pain is still there. For people that have experienced this kind of evil and wickedness, it will always be there."