On May 17, 1974, a series of car bombs exploded without warning on the streets of Dublin and nearby Monaghan, Ireland. The bombs wreaked havoc on the two cities, causing an unprecedented number of civilian casualties and leaving behind a legacy of pain that lingers to this day. The Dublin/Monaghan bombings resulted in the greatest loss of life on any one day during the Irish “Troubles,” which lasted roughly from 1969 until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Amongst the 34 casualties were a pregnant woman carrying a full-term unborn baby, a family of four with two small children, and an elderly veteran who had survived the First and Second World Wars.
More than 40 years later, in March of this year, a group of families of those killed and injured as a result of the bombings announced they were pushing for full disclosure from the British government in response to a legal challenge filed in 2015. Their lawsuit alleges that a notorious terrorist group called the “Glenanne Gang” carried out the attack with assistance from members of the British security services in Northern Ireland. The group has called upon the High Court in Belfast to order the British government to file their defence so their lawyers can gain access to important archive materials that may substantiate their claims of collusion.
This March also saw historic elections take place in Northern Ireland, in which a record number of voters turned out at the polls and nationalists won their largest victory since the partition of Ireland in 19211. Alongside this shift in power, the issue of how best to deal with the legacy of the past has arisen once again. Though the British and Irish governments, along with eight Northern Irish political parties, signed the peace deal which ended the conflict in 1998, it did not contain a definitive plan for the acknowledgement of victims and truth and reconciliation. There have since been three major attempts to lay the foundation for a truth recovery process, the most recent of which was outlined in the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement but has not been implemented.
In the absence of a formal process, relatives of victims, survivors and their supporters continue to fight on, pursuing all avenues available to them in their pursuit of justice. The Dublin-based Justice for the Forgotten (JFF), made up of survivors and relatives of those killed in the May 1974 bombings, is one such group. Since its official formation in 1996, JFF has worked tirelessly to shine some light on the world of shadows that cloaks the atrocity, exposing corruption, malfeasance and, as it happens, collusion between the British state and loyalist paramilitaries. Their journey and the unresolved case of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings presents a particularly egregious example of the constant struggle that victim-survivors face in pursuit of the truth about what happened to their loved ones. And yet, despite the carnage and the fact that evidence has emerged linking members of the British security forces to the atrocity, no one has been held accountable for what was one of the darkest, bloodiest days in modern Irish history.
"Airbrushed" into history
Last May, a small crowd of supporters gathered alongside bereaved families and survivors for a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of a memorial in Dublin’s Talbot Street. The annual event commemorated the 42nd anniversary of the bombings. Indeed, it still seems unfathomable that a bomb could go off in a major European city, claim the lives of more than 30 people and injure hundreds more, while the perpetrators remain unpunished. Though a preliminary police investigation yielded the names of 20 suspects, no one was ever questioned—let alone charged—with this heinous crime.
“I think those of us who survived were blessed, although we had to pick up the pieces ourselves and there was no one to help us,” remembers survivor Bernie McNally. “For those who lost their lives I think it’s an outrage that they’ve been airbrushed into history.”
How could this happen? Why would the powers that be allow justice to remain elusive to the victims of such a horrific tragedy?
JFF have a theory: Their evidence suggests that a group called the “Glenanne Gang,” made up of loyalist paramilitaries with assistance from members of the British security forces, carried out the bombings. They believe the group (named after the farm where the group allegedly met to plan their attacks) was ultimately responsible for the murder of more than 120 people. They argue that the British government is hiding behind the mantle of “national security” to prevent allegations of their own agents’ complicity from coming to light.
Armed with their evidence, JFF are determined to break the silence that surrounds the atrocity and expose the cover-up that has prevented justice from being served these 40+ years later.
The morning of the bombs
Many of the survivors of the Dublin/Monaghan bombings are quick to describe the deafening silence that seemed to last an eternity following the explosions that rocked the two cities.
“It was like a war zone...the world as we knew it changed in seconds,” remembers McNally, who was then 16 and working at a shoe shop in Talbot Street. The car containing the second bomb to go off was parked just outside the shop. “There was such an eerie feeling in the streets, because it was such a busy street and all of a sudden it was so quiet.”
A victim injured by a car bomb on Talbot Street, 1974.
McNally had just run to the door when she heard the first bomb go off, and was turning back inside when the Talbot Street bomb exploded. There was a big flash in the sky, and for a second McNally thought it was thunder and lightning.
“I saw the flash and then I was hit by the blast. The shop window came in, and the shop started to close in around us,” she recalls. “Everything seemed to be falling on us and the ground shook for a while.”
In the immediate aftermath of the bombs, thick smoke and dust made it nearly impossible to see. After the dust began to dissipate, screaming, wailing and crying punctuated the stillness. People ran around everywhere, searching for loved ones, looking for help and attending to the injured and dying. McNally was one of the lucky ones. She had survived.
Meanwhile, as McNally sought medical attention, many families waited in vain for their relatives to return home. Many households lacked telephones, so it took quite a while before news about people’s whereabouts in the wake of the bombings reached their families. Hundreds of people showed up at the city’s hospitals, pouring over remains in search of their loved ones.
And then, within days, the funerals began.
The “little people” fend for themselves
None of the families of those killed or the hundreds injured were prepared for the utter lack of response to the atrocity by the authorities and the Irish government.
“The families were totally abandoned after the bombings occurred, compensation was minimal—derisory, really, one could say,” explains Margaret Urwin, JFF secretary and author of the book, A State in Denial: British Collaboration with Loyalist Paramilitaries . “The families were just left to fend for themselves.”
Some of the victims, like McNally, were visited in the hospital by detectives and questioned in the immediate aftermath, but any follow-up ended there. There was no national day of mourning, no statements of sympathy from the government and no funds set aside for the dependents of those who were killed. Unlike the families impacted by Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 unarmed civilians at a Civil Rights march in Derry were killed by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, the families of those killed and injured in Dublin and Monaghan had no common purpose for being where they were when the bombs went off. According to Urwin, very few of the families knew each other, so there had been no coming together over the years for support.
Most of those killed and injured were from working class backgrounds, and Urwin believes that this has much to do with the lack of support they received. “We also feel that the government was able to ignore them, because they were what we might call ‘the little people’. And perhaps if somebody who would be or [was] regarded as more important had been killed there might have been more attention paid,” Urwin says. “So the successive governments were able to ignore the bombings for many, many years.”
Compounding the suffering was the fact that there were no programs for psychological support in Ireland in the 1970s. The advice in those days was to “get on with your life and don’t dwell on it,” explains Urwin. “That’s what people believed then.”
McNally agrees: “You had all these feelings bottled in because there was no such thing as counselling or anything like that.”
Dublin, 1974, hours after the bombing.
As the weeks and months passed, McNally found comfort and support in a small, tight-knit group of girlfriends. In a way, she believes, they became her de-facto counsellors. “They just pulled me along in life, you know? And I got my confidence from them.”
Still, despite support from family and friends, it was difficult for her. Most of McNally’s wounds were superficial, but she had suffered severe injuries to one eye that would leave her blind on her left side. Although her doctors wished to remove her eye at one point, McNally says she was not psychologically capable of parting with it at that stage. Her left eye would finally be removed in 1998. To this day, she continues to have reconstructive surgery once or twice a year.
“I went on for years not sleeping at night, just in fear at night of maybe the bedroom window breaking in on top of me. But because there was no counselling, there was nobody to explain anything to you or to listen to your fears,” McNally recalls. “You just had to pick up the pieces the best way you could yourself.”
Almost 20 years would go by before the families affected by the bombings would find an occasion to come together to share their experiences of the day.
Allegations of collusion begin to surface
Although the major loyalist paramilitary groups initially denied responsibility, eventually a group called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) admitted that it carried out the bombings. Formed in 1966, the UVF’s mission was to maintain Northern Ireland’s position as part of the UK and to defeat the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Many at the time took the UVF’s admission at face value.
As time passed, however, people began to ask questions: was the UVF acting on their own, or did they have help? In her ground-breaking book, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland , Anne Cadwallader, journalist and caseworker for the Pat Finucane Centre for Human Rights, says that rumours began to surface in the early 1990s that the UVF may have had help from British security services.
“At first sight, it seems an outlandish allegation that the single greatest loss of life in any one day in the conflict could be in any way connected to the servants or agents of one of the two democratically elected governments most closely involved,” she writes. “The British political establishment still firmly contests any claim of responsibility.”
The media’s first attempt to investigate and respond to rumours of collusion came in the form of a 1993 documentary called “Hidden Hand: The Forgotten Massacre.” The program’s revelations included testimony from British Army and Irish Army explosive experts, both of whom were sceptical that the UVF would have been capable of carrying out such a complex operation alone. Some of the technology used to create the bombs was typical of IRA explosives, yet experts did not believe loyalist groups had used similar technology or were even aware of its existence. “Hidden Hand” also revealed that the evidence from the crime scenes was mishandled and significantly delayed from forensic testing. The program also named a number of UVF men whom producers believe participated in the bombings, citing sources within the British Army, as well as a former member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.2
Who, then, was ultimately responsible for the atrocity? And why were they not apprehended in the aftermath?
The “little people” come together
“Hidden Hand” served as a catalyst for the formation of JFF. For many of those directly affected, it was the first time they had received any real account of what had actually happened on the day of the bombings and their immediate aftermath. As a result, people began to reach out to one another to share their experiences. Following a few years of ad hoc meetings, JFF was officially formed in 1996.
At the outset, the group thought that there might be a possibility of securing prosecutions for those responsible for the carnage, yet the vast majority of the families now accept that that is unrealistic and are instead focused on getting to the truth of what happened. Members of JFF set their sights on three main issues: the alleged involvement of the British security services; the lack of action on the part of the Irish government in going after those responsible; and the integrity of both the RUC and Garda (Irish police) investigations.
JFF’s work led the Irish government to hold two non-judicial inquiries into the circumstances surrounding the bombings, which produced the Barron Report (2003) and the MacEntee Report (2007).
Reflecting on JFF’s work to date, Urwin says, “The most important thing is that the British have refused to cooperate” with their inquiries and requests for information.
For example, during his investigation, Judge Barron was unable to gain access to any original documents from the British government. JFF has been fighting for access to these ever since. Both inquiries also revealed shocking levels of mismanagement in the handling of the investigations.
The MacEntee report exposed the fact that many documents had gone missing from Garda files, and due to the lack of sufficient systems in place at the time, it is impossible to assess how many more files are untraceable. The missing files leave it hard to know definitively why the Garda’s investigation ended not quite three months after the bombings.
Since the publication of the reports, the Irish parliament has passed three unanimous motions (in 2008, 2011 and 2016) calling on the British government to hand over the Dublin/Monaghan files. Both motions have been ignored by Westminster. Urwin explains that the campaign has tried to make it as easy as possible for the British government to comply with their requests, “But unfortunately it came to nothing and we are now actually suing the British government,” Urwin says. “The families feel they have no other option.”
In 2015, JFF lodged a civil suit against the British government with the hopes that they might move to a point of discovery where they might receive documents showing evidence of collusion.
Gavin Booth is a Belfast-based attorney who has worked on the case. “The British state could easily offer money to make this go away and not admit liability, but the families don’t want that. They want the truth. They are taking civil cases because it is the only form of truth and accountability that we can get in this jurisdiction. Since the Good Friday Agreement, there hasn’t been anything put in place to effectively deal with the past as of yet,” Booth explains.
Collusion concerns brought to US Congress
In March of 2015, Cadwallader testified at a US Congressional hearing on collusion chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). In the case of the Dublin/Monaghan bombings, she alleges that the British government chose not to share information about the identities of the bombers with the Irish government so as not to embarrass the Crown.
“Collusion,” Cadwallader testified, “is a word that has sometimes been used as a political battering ram, but it was a tactic used by the RUC and British military intelligence to manipulate and control both sides throughout the recent conflict.”
Though some make the excuse that the selective administration of the law is sometimes necessary in times of violent conflict, Cadwallader argued that in such circumstances it is that much more important to uphold the principle that no one is above the law.
“Once you tailor the means to meet the ends, no matter how laudable, you’re on a slippery slope. We contend that London went down that slippery slope during the 35-year civil conflict in Northern Ireland, and that this rendered the British state culpable for at least part of the loss of life, the grief, the waste, the agony that the people of Northern Ireland suffered,” Cadwallader said.
A promising future ahead
Though time passes slowly, support for the “little people” continues to grow.
U2’s song “Raised by Wolves,” on Songs of Innocence, is a reflection on the day of the bombing, as seen from the perspective of a childhood friend. During their world tour, the band projected JFF’s banner and photographs of bombing victims each time they performed the song. Though thrilled with the exposure, for the most part days go by quietly, and members of JFF find strength in one another as their campaign for truth moves forward with no end in sight.
The U2 Concert in Vancouver, in remembrance of those lost in the Dublin/Monaghan bombings, 2015.
Until they reach their ultimate goal, JFF, and groups like them in communities throughout Ireland, are joining together to resist, to re-write an imposed narrative of their past, and to share their truths, and in so doing, are opening a crack in the shameful history of British collusion with paramilitaries during the Troubles.
“Over the years, I used to look at my face and think, ‘How could this happen and nobody cares?’ I’d never voiced them words to anybody, but that was the question in my head,” said McNally. “But when I joined the campaign and became aware of the amount of people who lost their daughters, their sons, pregnant women—whole families that were wiped out—I’m looking at these people thinking how blessed I was to get up off that street. To dust myself off in the best way I could and get on with my life.”
JFF is part of a growing movement in Ireland that believes that the best path forward for society to deal with the legacy of the past is an international, independent truth recovery process. The British government, by withholding critical information and refusing to admit their role, further traumatizes families who were already suffering as a direct result of the bombings.
Feature image: The car bomb at South Leinster Street, Dublin, by the railings of Trinity College
1. Following the War of Independence, in which Irish nationalists sought to secede from the United Kingdom, the Government of Ireland Act (1920) established two separate parliaments in Northern Ireland (the six counties in the Northeast) and southern Ireland, thereby partitioning the country.
2. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was Northern Ireland’s police force at the time.
Kate McCabe is the director of Éist, an organization which cultivates and promotes first-person perspectives of justice and accountability in the aftermath of war. She received her master’s degree in Environmental Justice from the University of Michigan; while there she began a lasting commitment to work on behalf of victims/survivors and in pursuit of truth recovery in the North of Ireland. McCabe is a recipient of the Irish Echo's 40 Under 40 Award. She is a former National President of the Irish American Unity Conference, and in this role organized the first and only Congressional Briefing on Irish Language Equality and was the only American to make a submission to the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past. McCabe is a graduate of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. She currently sits on the board of Irish American Writers & Artists in New York City.