How remembering can replay the hurt

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Gerry Adams carrying the coffin of Shankill bomber Thomas Begley in 1993. Image courtesy of PA


There are words we hear in life that never leave us – stored in that remembering part of us that never forgets.

It could be the loyalist describing the nightmare of “sleeping with the victims”. In other words not being able to sleep with his conscience.

It could be sitting in a car with the IRA leadership spokesman ‘P O’Neill’ as he read a list of the so-called disappeared; the names of those executed and secretly buried by the republican organisation.

That list was read as part of a sequence of events in which the IRA leadership said it believed it had established “the whereabouts of the graves of nine people”.

Since that meeting in March 1999, the list has been added to.

The remains of some of those disappeared have been found, but others have not.

Then there are the words spoken by a police officer about 15 months after the Shankill bomb, an interview in which he described the horror of that day in October 1993.

“As the rubble was being removed and it will stay with me until I die, I saw a young girl’s foot, and I knew it was a young girl’s foot because her shoe size was about three or four, and it poked through the rubble and I wanted to stop digging then.”

Wanted to, but had to continue the search.

Ten people were dead, the youngest aged just seven, and among those killed was one of the bombers Thomas Begley.

Outside his family and local community, none of us knew him, but that day – the bomb and the body count – have come together to make him one of the bogeymen of this place and its different wars.

Yet the story of the Shankill bomb is much bigger than Thomas Begley.

Who planned the attack?

Who calculated that a bomb could be carried into a fish shop that day to target an office up above used by loyalists?

Who decided what would be an acceptable number of civilian deaths in a bigger plan to try to kill members of the UDA including Johnny Adair?

Who sent Begley and others out on that mission?

There was no one in the offices up above, and that bomb slaughtered civilians – men, women and children – on the Shankill Road that Saturday afternoon.


Thomas Begley’s name will always be associated with that action and, twenty years later, a planned commemoration to remember him within Ardoyne in north Belfast has become the next controversy linked to the past, the next thing to trip up the present.

It is a war not yet forgotten playing into a peace not yet complete and it is that battle between what and whom should be remembered, or forgotten or ignored.

On his album ‘End of the War’, Belfast singer/songwriter Joby Fox aptly juxtaposes the words “remembering and triumphalist,” and his wordplay defines and describes today’s fight.

He told me his album track ‘Republican and Loyalist’ (above) was inspired by the late Gordon Wilson and the words he spoke after losing his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bomb.

Fox sings: “I heard your stricken father say he’d pray for those who’d done this to us all.”

They are words that could be transported or taken into many communities and homes – republican, loyalist and security forces, words that could be painted across the bloody canvas and pictures of this conflict.

The past, who died, how they died and how they are remembered and commemorated is becoming a battleground in the peace.

Recently it was Castlederg. Now it is Begley.

The loyalist Brian Robinson – remembered in an annual parade – has become part of the argument and, in this atmosphere, it will soon be someone or something else.

It happens because we are still arguing over the past, how to describe what happened, who is a victim, who is not, who deserves remembrance and who doesn’t.

In the debris and destruction and death of a decades-long conflict, we will not find one narrative or description or truth, but we need to find a different way.

Recently, the Sinn Fein Chair Declan Kearney described the challenge – commemoration on the basis of dignity, mutual respect and not giving offence.

It is a challenge for all the sides in war and not just republicans, and it is part of an incomplete and unfinished peace.

What happened here cannot not just be blamed and left with those who went to jail, cannot just be dumped on the republican and loyalist communities.

Such a narrow examination of context leaves too many with an escape route.

In the current battles, we forget how much has changed,  how much is different and better.

What was it once like? Just turn the pages back 20 years.

Between October 21 and October 30 1993, including those who died on the Shankill and at Greysteel, 25 people lost their lives.

The wars are over, but not forgotten.

On this website, not long ago, I asked a question: Can we have quiet remembering without the parade?

I asked for this reason, that whether intentional or not, some of this commemorating is replaying the hurt and re-traumatising and it is for those reasons that there has to be a better way.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. The godgathers who else, planners the cratfy ones who play a political game, they rid as many horses as they could use, they are the state today, young ones died for freedom of Ireland, but the masters played it well ps/f, would speak to PIRA, dogs in the street knew that they were speaking to themselves. Those in power are elected by tribes , they are untrustworthy, anyone who sets out, use others to do their dirty work and they take the money and laugh all the way to the banks, and families are left to pick up the pieces grave yards. AS A CATHOLIC PROVO MURDERED MORE OF THEIR OWN PEOPLE BEAT THEM TO DEATH BLOWN THEIR OWN TO BITS AND SCARED THE NATION ALMOST TO DEATH 4, 000 MURDERS 47, 500 INJURED… NEVER TRUST SOCIOPATHS.

  2. Interesting piece Brian. You might be interested in our project which is speaking to ordinary people who lived along the border during the troubles/conflict. We are focussing on each individual and their life story and experience. Boxing people into groups – victims and survivors, ex-combatants etc- whenever it is rarely that black and white can be unhelpful. Rather we are looking at the person, the human, the life. We need to look at the humanity on all sides, and listen to the individual and what they have to say. I believe that is the only way that we can come to some understanding about our past. We also need to take the attention away from the headline news-makers and give it to those who never have the chance to tell their story- everyday, hard working people who were affected.

  3. I was at a Peace III event yesterday with my good friends and fellow travellers Brian Rowan and Eamonn Mallie Aka Seamus Mallie.. He has seen the value in my work – and im not talking money here. I have never been and never will be part of the industrial peace process. My endavour is an artistic endevour and that of the human spirit to face all it darkness, and the sins of the father.. Thank you Brian, thanks to you both for seeing what I see. Joby

    • Joby – There are those who want to use the past as another battleground and as the next play.
      People shouldn’t be hurt again.
      Your song above remembered and recognised the powerful words of the late Gordon Wilson after the Enniskillen bomb.
      I interviewed Gordon for the first book I wrote almost twenty years ago. He was a remarkable man who spoke words that will never be forgotten – words that travel with time.
      There is also a challenge in the words posted below by the project Border Lives: “We need to look at the humanity on all sides.”
      That’s the real task ahead.
      Any exploration of the past can’t just be about what happened, but why – and why it should never happen again.
      Events of the past 48 hours are a reminder that not all guns are silent.
      There is work still to be done.

  4. Another insightful piece Brian that presents and outlines huge challenges for us all!

    The past is clearly playing out in the present of a daily basis. The challenge in remembering conflict deceased – particularly combatants – is to do so in a way that in no way contributes to the pain and hurt of victims’s families.

    To this debate I want to offer some of my thoughts and observations.

    Today in the News Letter it is reported that Sean Begley – brother of Thomas Begley the IRA volunteer who planted and was subsequently killed in the Shankill Bomb – said he and his family were aware of the hurt caused by the Shankill Bomb and “are very sorry for what happened”. Speaking of the deaths of innocents and the choices his brother made to join the IRA Sean Begley said that his parents: “didn’t bring Thomas up to go down the Shankill Road and blow innocent people up”.

    The intervention from the Begley family is an effort to shape the public presentation of an act of remembrance that has caused such distress to Shankill Bomb victims. The family will be in attendance to “remember Thomas”. Their public intervention is undoubtedly motivated to maintain a focus on the personal act of remembrance and to avoid ‘replaying the hurt’ of victims that accompanies such emotive anniversaries.

    In the same vein I was involved earlier this year in planning the commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of the New Lodge Six killings – where six men were killed by the British army. On the emotive occasion the deceased families acknowledged that, “many others from the neighbouring Unionist and Protestant communities lost lives during the conflict. And that these losses brought a painful sense of loss that must be acknowledged.” In many ways this was a small effort to acknowledge the pain and loss of others families and communities who literally were on a different side of a brutal conflic. It was also a statement that in conflict terrible things happen that ordinarily should not have happened – and in which ordinary people engage in acts that they too ordinarily never have engaged in.

    The Shankill Bomb was a huge tragedy. A terrible loss of life. It should not have happened. Such human tragedies with such loss of innocent lives silence and render inappropriate any need for explanations or analysis. To say anything is affront to the families who lost so much on that fateful day. It is however significant that the Begley family have said they were ‘sorry for what happened’. These words seem to me to be an effort not to add to the distress of victims families of the Shankill Bomb as a result of a commemoration to remember their son and brother.

    The tragedy of our conflict is that there were so many fateful days were lives were changed forever. Most lives are remembered quietly in the routine of everyday life. All are remembered in some way by family, friends, comrades or organisations – others have a more public expression. In such circumstances it is vital that these commemorations do not add to the grief of victims families.

    It is true that the imagery of the poster of the Thomas Begley commemoration – of which the family knew little – did cause offense to victims of the Shankill Bomb. It is evident that the family intervention is to ensure that event is solely about ‘a quick remembrance to say we are still thinking’ of their son and brother.

    Last week the debate on the past focused on the definition of a victim this week it is how an IRA volunteer is remembered when his actions claimed 9 innocent lives. There is little doubt that in the absence of an agreed conflict narrative that every act of commemoration and remembrance will be contested. This society has not found a way to make sense of the past. In the absence of a process to deal with the past the debate is filled with recrimination and bitterness.

    Yet we need to have the conversations – we need to find a new language – as to what were the underlying factors that created and sustained the context of conflict in which 3700 people were killed, 40000 injured and which witnessed 30000 people spend 175000 years in jail.

    There is no doubt that dealing with the past is a complex and difficult area where there is not ‘one narrative or description of truth’. Indeed it is within this frame that communities can easily separate the person, their choices and decisions and the consequences of their actions. In many respects victims are viewed through a personal lens that has been shaped by lived communal experiences.

    The outworking of this is that there is no contradiction acknowledging the tragedy of Shankill and the Begley family’s loss of a son and brother. Thomas Begley, like many within Ardoyne, made a choice to join the IRA. The consequences of his decision to join the IRA and his subsequent actions were that innocent lives were tragically lost. These were conflict defined decisions. He was an ordinary young man like so many others.

    As a consequence of Thomas Begley’s decisions his family also became victim’s – victim’s of a conflict that was not of their making. In other words their son made a choice that he ought not have had to make – and delivered a terrible tragedy that they too must live with. They “blame the conflict and the war itself” for their loss and as an explanation for their son’s actions.

    That in no way should detract from the loss on the Shankill Road.

    It actually speaks to the multiple narratives of conflict that are held and commemorated despite being punctuated by stories of horror and loss. In other words there is no contradiction remembering lost lives – either combatant or civilian – and separating that from the consequences and awfulness of their actions.

    In 2013 – fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement and almost twenty years after the first cessations – there is a broader question about how this society selectively remembers and commemorates aspects the past. Until this nettle is grasped – or rubicon crossed – the past and how its remembered or celebrated will remain a battlefield.

    One thing is for sure is that it will be families who suffered as a result of the conflict who are best placed to ensure that their right to remember does not cause additional distress, pain and grief to the families of other victims.

    In speaking to the News Letter, and saying what they said, the Begley family have attempted to do to ensure that the act of remembrance of their son – Thomas Begley – does not replay the hurt of those innocent families killed in the Shankill Bomb.

    • John – Every day this place and this debate walks on eggshells.
      There is no way of avoiding or escaping the hurt; no other route that allows us to tiptoe away from what happened.
      There are broken people out there who can never be fixed – in all communities and the many communities.
      They have suffered great hurt at the hands and through the actions of all the sides. You’re right that most of the lost lives in a decades-long conflict “are remembered quietly in the routine of everyday life”.
      In other words, well away from the headlines and the news. It’s what I call “quiet remembering”.
      It doesn’t mean that people have forgotten.
      You are right also when you write: “There is little doubt that in the absence of an agreed conflict narrative that every act of commemoration and remembrance will be contested.”
      After the ‘long wars’ we have entered a ‘very long peace’ – meaning it will take a long time to complete and finish.
      Finding answers to this will need something much bigger than the Haass Talks. We read the challenge in the post below from the project Border Lives: “We need to look at the humanity on all sides.”
      We all need to stand and pause and think in the shoes of others.

  5. Most of us never held a gun or a bomb but enough of us must have held attitudes that allowed these things to go on in our society, otherwise why would it have lasted so long?

  6. Barney, I think most of that is spot on. The only thing I would add is that we have been at this long enough, everyone knows the impacts of their actions and the effects it has on others and importantly where it will cause pain. With this knowledge many still consciously decide to transcend the remembrance and enter triumphalism. There is a huge difference between respectfully remembering and putting on a show.

    In your article you talked about those who decided to target the Shankill bomb and what they felt was ‘acceptable collateral damage’, I think we are still there, all be it in a non-violent way. Both sides choose to knowingly hurt the other because a political battle still rages and they have an ensatiable need to play to their respective galleries. To a certain extent this is cosmetic but the damage is real, it hurts and it opens old wounds. Sometimes old wounds need to be examined and sometimes reopened to help them heal better, but always in a safe and sterile environment, our politics is far from that, it is competitive and it is dirty, too ready to accept ‘collateral damage’ for brownie points at home.

    Not only is much of our most visual and political signs of ‘remembering’ damaging, it also makes genuine reconciliation and dealing with the past even harder.

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