Photo by John Bierman
An iconic scene from January 30th, 1972 – the day that became known as Bloody Sunday. The body of a young civil rights protester, Jackie Duddy, 17, is being carried away, and the Catholic priest, Father Edward Daly, is waving a blood-stained handkerchief to prevent further shots being fired. The young man was given the last rites in the street. This image was later sent around the world, painted on walls, and printed on T-shirts. Inspired by Father Daly’s conduct, I wrote to him and he was kind enough to reply.
On Sunday, January 30th 1972, in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland, a regiment of the British Army opened fire on a civil rights march. They were protesting the recent creation of internment camps, where suspected IRA members were being held without trial. When the army blocked the official route, the young men began to throw stones at them. Then something terrible happened: the army began to fire live ammunition. 27 people were shot, and by the end of the day 13 of them lay dead. The Army said that shots had been fired and that they had returned fire. The marchers said that no-one was armed and five of the dead had been shot while running away.
I was 16 when it happened and I remember exactly where I was standing the following day when I saw the Daily Mirror with the front page news. I remember a sinking feeling in my stomach. It troubled me greatly. The image on the front cover was disturbing, unlike any newspaper picture I’d ever seen. Here was a teenager just a year older than me shot on the street of his town – by our own army? I was bewildered by what seemed to me to be the beginning of a civil war. It frightened me.
Living in Cornwall we didn’t feel connected with London and had some strange sense of kinship with our fellow Celts in Ireland. Like them, we were way out west. Out west and a world away from Westminster.Trying to understand why people hated each other, as well as trying to solve many other questions I had on my mind, I began to explore eastern philosophy.
So by 1976 I had just turned 20 and I was in Derry, Northern Ireland, trying to sell copies of the Bhagavad-gita. I was British and it was only four years after Bloody Sunday. The atmosphere was tense, and so was our reception. Although the people were friendly, and we had not come with a political message, still everyone was preocuupied with the ever present troubles, and everyone knew someone whose home had been visited by personal tragedy.
The army were still very much present in the city, patrolling in staggered columns, looking here and there at second-floor windows for snipers. They seemed remote, fixed on an unseen threat and a world away from the shoppers around them, although sharing the same street. Heavily protected and armed, they were an incongruous sight outside Woolworths. Every so often an armoured car would slowly drive down the road.
Our home at the time was a converted single-decker bus that doubled as a ‘travelling temple’ complete with an altar and a large space for the public to come inside and talk to us. We’d take it to schools and market squares and talk to people. That evening we had a rendezvous with members of a youth club in the Bogside, the part of Derry where the residents were predominantly Catholic and Republican. A large mural taking up the entire end of a house declared: “You are now entering Free Derry.”
As we entered the Bogside and drove towards the church hall where our event was to be held, some unseen person threw a stone at our bus. At first we thought it was some road chippings or a sound out in the dark street. Then another stone came down on the roof, then another, closely followed by a volley of stones. Stone-throwing was common of course, especially if you had British mainland number plates as we did. I had already been stoned once before, but that time I was outside the bus. One stone cracked me on the head – and it hurt. On that day we were in Shankhill Road which was predominantly Protestant; so we couldn’t quite figure out why they’d want to stone ‘the Brits.’ Maybe the younger kids just liked the sport of throwing stones.
Somehow we decided to carry on, navigating a silver single-decker bus through narrow streets. When we met our contact it turned out that many IRA members had invited the children to come to this non-sectarian event. Slowly they began to arrive, the kids who had thrown stones looking a bit cowed at their mistake, especially when they saw their own burly youth leader standing there at the door.
The hall was packed and we did what we always do: Kirtan, lecture, drama, short talk followed by prasadam. Kirtan got everybody going, especially when we asked them to raise their hands and dance in a line round the hall. When the parents saw their kids enjoying themselves they also raised their hands and started to dance – a brief respite from the pressures of life around them. It was when we broke out the prasadam – food offered to Krishna – that all the children became a tidal wave that engulfed the stage where we’d started serving. Although there seemed to be hundreds of them, they all got some hot strawberry halavah washed down with milkshake.
As we packed up and said our goodbyes, we were invited to ‘please come again, ’cause everyone liked it.’ It was good to be appreciated, and to think that we’d been able to do some good for people in a place where there’d been so much grief. For me personally, it was a precious few moments when I’d come into contact with the people behind the headline that had so moved me as a teenager. I was able to see that behind every headline there’s a multitude of personal stories, and that spiritually I’d been able to help in some small way, albeit briefly.
Some years later, one of our Bhagavad-gitas made its way into the infamous Long Kesh Prison, otherwise known as The Maze. Home to Gerry Adams and many others, it was also the temporary home of one young IRA man who was also looking for his own answers in eastern philosophy. After two years in the ‘H-blocks’ of the Maze, he took to the daily practises of Vaishnavism and has remained a devotee of Krishna ever since.
The ‘Bloody Sunday Inquiry’ – the second inquiry into the events – began in March 2000 and is still continuing. Confident expectations are that the inquiry will conclude in late 2009.
Below: How the Daily Mirror told the story. Bottom: Mural on a Bogside wall
Moving images: Click here
And for a dramatic reconstruction of events: Click here