A Cycle n the Celtic Fringe … Part 36
I never intended to go to Omagh. I thought the resonance of the place would be too strong for me. That I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the complexities of the historical and political situation that has become known as “The Troubles”. I thought a sensitive soul like me might find it all a bit too much to take. I don’t think horrible events should be part of the tourist trail. As a teacher I’m in favour of trips to the trenches of Northern France but, like the character Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, I am very uncomfortable with school trips to Auschwitz. I certainly don’t think we should find a visit to a scene of death something to do as a day out.
SDLP leader John Hume may have called the perpetrators of the bomb that made the name of Omagh resonate throughout the world, “undiluted fascists”, and what happened at Omagh was brutal, bloody and unforgivable. It shocked the world. It shocked the hardened citizens of Northern Ireland. If it was intended to disrupt the peace process that had reached a climax earlier that year with The Good Friday Agreement, then it failed completely. It had the opposite effect.
When the bomb exploded on Lower Market Street at ten past three on the 15th of August 1998 it killed 21 people outright. 8 more were to die either on the way to hospital or when they got there. The bombers had issued warnings but these had served to move people towards the explosion rather than away from it. For years it has been disputed whether this was the bombers’ intention.
For a conflict that had been continued along sectarian lines, the bomb was indiscriminate in its victims. Catholics, Protestants, A Mormon, teenagers, a woman pregnant with twins, children were all taken by the blast.
The carnage was so great that the Real IRA apologised for what they had done.
BBC correspondent Denis Murray said: “Most people in Northern Ireland and around the world will be saying you can’t just apologise for what happened on Saturday.”
“All of them were suffering together. I think all them were asking the question ‘Why?’, because so many of them had great expectations, great hopes for the future.” Martin Mc Guinness
“From the Church’s point of view, all I am concerned about are not political arguments, not political niceties. I am concerned about the torment of ordinary people who don’t deserve this.” Archbishop Robin Eames
An “appalling act of savagery and evil.” Tony Blair
“The injuries are horrific, from amputees, to severe head injuries to serious burns, and among them are women and children.” Paul McCormick: Northern Ireland Ambulance Service.
I’d arrived in Newtownstewart about nine in the morning hoping to find a bicycle shop. Bicycle shops used to be in every small town but have been disappearing almost as fast as Family Butchers’ and grocer’s shops. The reasons are the same. The big boys have muscled in. Tesco and Sainsbury’s have seen off the little food retailer and Halfords has almost single handedly seen off the small, skilled bicycle shop.
Newtownstewart has lost its spokes man. Some lovely ladies in the post office said they thought there might be a little shop in Omagh, but there was definitely a Halfords. The only other choice was to head north to Londonderry. There was a chance I could nurse my back wheel the 10 miles to Omagh. There was no way it would reach the Northern Coast.
Freewheeling downhill was possible once I’d removed the back brake blocks. I cannot pedal at all. The action drags the buckled wheel against the frame. The ten miles is covered by pushing and gliding. The good news is that there may be a choice of places to get me fixed and there is a quiet, back lane, alternative to the busy A road between the towns. On any other day I would have found the ride a real treat. The quaint inaccuracies of the road signs would have made me smile. The first says Omagh ten miles. After two miles the second says Newtownstewart 2 miles (so far so good) Omagh 10 miles. Those phantom two miles took half an hour. It took a good part of the morning to reach a town I’d been trying to avoid.
And it was lovely. The most delightful, charming, warm and friendly town I had encountered on my whole journey through three countries. The people went out of their way to help a badly dressed cyclist with an overladen wobbly bicycle.. they told me that the independent cycle shop had closed down some time ago but that Halfords was really just around the corner. Give or take a big, multi laned road, and they were right.
The young men at Halfords were friendliness itself. They didn’t have the right wheel but could make adjustments to one they did have in stock and get it fitted and service up the bicycle and have me back on the road if I’d come back at three o’clock. I was thrilled to pieces. No price was mentioned. I hoped it wouldn’t cost too much. At one stage that morning I had seriously considered throwing the bicycle into the ditch and catching a bus to the nearest railway station and abandoning the whole journey. I was far too fond of the old bicycle to come home without it. Now it was being looked after by three jolly lads who couldn’t do enough for me. The gears had been concerning me enough to leave the North Antrim coast and cut through the mountains. As well as a new back wheel I was in for a new chain and some expert care to the cogs.
I’m leaving this post as it is for now. I don’t feel I can do justice to the weight of the town. The bare bone history of the bomb set against a little impression of a town at peace with itself. A town of good people going about their business in a friendly and courteous manner. And that is what made it so very sad as well as so happy. It had been such another August day with good people doing what good people do when darkness came. But good people ensured that what made it a special place survived.
Omagh lit a beacon of truth and hope that seemed finally to bring enough people to their senses. The beacon burns strongly today. The bomb stands for ill conceived plotting based on principles of hatred. Omagh stands for the opposite of this. Evil succeeds when good people do nothing. The good people of Omagh did something. They rallied and showed the world how to cope, how to solace, how to care and how to heal. The outside world looked on and learned. I don’t know if I could have made this journey fifteen years ago. I don’t know if I could have made the journey without the success of the peace process. I don’t know if the peace process would have succeeded without this final atrocity.
What I do know is the Omagh that has survived the bomb has grown back every bit as welcoming and friendly and well-proportioned and nicely laid out, as it was before, and a good deal stronger in love and spirit. I fell a little bit in love with the place. I ate fried chicken and chips and had a mug of coffee. I sat for a long time at the top of the Street and looked down through the town.
The town was simply the model of what you want a small town to be. Some good shops, a decent café or two and a large number of the best people you’ll find in these islands. The real horror of the bomb was that it took place somewhere that was already a model of what hundreds of thousands of British and Irish had fought for earlier in the twentieth century; decency.