By John Callister
It’s exactly 30 years ago today, 8th November, since the Enniskillen Poppy Day bomb claimed the lives of eleven people. It was Remembrance Sunday 1987, and local people had gathered at the town cenotaph to remember the dead from two world wars. It was during this remembrance ceremony that an IRA bomb was detonated. In that instant, many lives were shattered and family members faced a future that would never be the same again.
I didn’t suffer like those who were directly affected by the bomb. No members of my family circle were killed or injured. But as part of a BBC team who would spend the week in Enniskillen after the bombing, it has poignant memories for me, even after these thirty years.
There we were, rightly or wrongly, working around the clock in a grief-stricken town, edit suites and other broadcast facilities assembled in a make-shift manner in a church hall. Had we come to comfort the townsfolk in their grief? To sympathise and offer condolences? Hardly. We had come primarily to feed our ‘media machine’ which was connected to other hungry ‘media machines’ around the world. Social media wasn’t an option in those days so in some ways it was up to those of us who were in situ, to gather stories from grieving relatives and present a picture of a town in mourning, to the world.
In some ways it felt like we were intruders – forcing ourselves in where we weren’t really wanted. Yet, we had a job to do, and society as a whole had granted us permission to be there and do that job. We had come to tell the story of a people who were grieving and suffering immense pain, and feed those stories to the world.
Yet, on a personal level, I know I DID feel their pain. I DID empathise with them as they faced this agony. I would have done anything to ease their pain. Like many of the stories I had been involved with during the Northern Ireland troubles, I was amazed at how some individuals responded. How they refused to let any seeds of bitterness take root. How they looked to an ‘eternal’ perspective, committing their future to God and releasing their departed loved ones into His care. How some even had an attitude of forgiveness towards the perpetrators.
The ability to react in such a way is to me, one of life’s mysteries. It’s like the question I had asked time and time again, “Why do bad things happen to good people”? I stopped asking that question when, in my search, I did find the answer to an equally important question, “What happens to good people when bad things happen to them”? It was in a book written by the late Robert Schuller that I found a pointer towards an answer – ‘They become better people’. Schuller went on to explain that when people are caught up in tragedies and injustices such as Enniskillen, they are faced with two options; they can either become bitter people, or better people.
I’m not suggesting that if I was placed in the same circumstances I would have the ability to react in a positive way or become a better person. Nor would I in any way condemn anyone or underestimate the difficulty of adopting a good attitude when faced with such adverse circumstances. But one of the ‘big’ stories that emerged in the week following the atrocity was that of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter, Marie, was killed and who was himself injured in the attack. He repeated his 20-year-old daughter’s final words to him as they both lay in the rubble of the bombing. “Daddy, I love you very much,” she said. Her father’s response to the bombing, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge,” was reported worldwide, becoming among the most-remembered quotations from the Troubles. Gordon’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation came to be called the Spirit of Enniskillen.”
Gordon Wilson’s interview may have been the most quoted, but there were many other moving interviews from that time. Interviews with real people facing a real life, tragic situation, and yet finding words of hope and even inspiration to pass on to the world. Before that week was out, I had a certain inexplicable ‘feeling’ – a kind of satisfaction or purpose. I went from not wanting to be there, to wanting to be part of what was happening. It was as if I felt some ‘good’ was going to come out of this tragedy, something that would advance the cause of peace. I later learned that the IRA lost a lot of their international support due to this bombing.
Thirty years ago, Enniskillen challenged me. It challenged me to do more for the cause of peace so that a younger generation wouldn’t have to witness atrocities like this. Years later, I had the pleasure of returning to Enniskillen, this time to a peaceful town as an independent producer to carry out a number of filming projects for worldwide tourist promotional purposes, commissioned by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Fermanagh District Council. I also interviewed Gordon Wilson for a German TV outlet. I grew to love the place. Over the years my family have enjoyed numerous holidays, weekends and days outings, in or around Enniskillen. It was a favourite, especially since my father was raised in County Fermanagh, not far from the town.
Days like today’s anniversary, are a reminder that in Northern Ireland, we’re on a journey towards peace. I can’t say if time has brought any degree of healing to those who lost family members and loved ones. I suspect the pain of their loss isn’t far beneath the surface and my heart goes out to them. But I’m thankful today for what Enniskillen taught me thirty years ago. And I’m thankful that that event became a turning point, and was the cause of many rejecting the path of violence and creating a new foundation for the relative peace that we enjoy in Northern Ireland today.