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Sunday 20 August 2017

Irish musician blinded in terrorist bombing refuses to let outrage define her: 'I had ambitions and a life to live'

The targeting of teenagers and children in the Manchester explosion has shocked the world. As a 15-year-old, Claire Bowes was blinded in the Omagh bomb. She tells our reporter how she refused to let the outrage define her - and rebuilt her life

Determination: Claire Bowes who was injured in the Omagh bomb and now runs Omagh Music Academy. Photo: Peter Morrison
Determination: Claire Bowes who was injured in the Omagh bomb and now runs Omagh Music Academy. Photo: Peter Morrison
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Claire Bowes can relate to the experiences of the victims injured in the Manchester bomb. She has been through the ordeal of a calamitous explosion herself.

She was blinded instantly in the bomb that killed 29 people at Omagh, but was determined to rebuild her life.

Claire is now a busy mother, married with three children, and runs her own music academy in her home town.

On that summer day in 1998, as a bright 15-year-old, she went into Omagh with her friends for a day's shopping.

"On that day I was carefree - the way you should be as a teenager," says Claire. "I was into Boyzone, like many teenagers at the time. I loved music and I played the piano."

After 2.30pm there was a warning that a bomb would go off near the town's courthouse. But the warning proved inaccurate and it exploded close to where Claire and her friends were standing.

The Manchester bomb is in some ways comparable to Omagh, where there were many young victims. The death toll included children and teenagers from a wide area.

"When the bomb went off, suddenly everything changed, as it has done for so many in Manchester," she says.

She lost consciousness for a few minutes after she was hit by a piece of shrapnel. Amid frantic scenes on the rubble-strewn street, her friends tried to move her, but she would not budge.

But then she came around, and remembers what happened from that moment on.

Read more: I couldn't see anything. It felt like I was in the middle of a dream

A stranger came to her assistance, and organised a van to take her to hospital. She was brought to the hospital where her mother worked as a radiographer, and she was then airlifted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

"When I look back, there was the feeling in my head of how lucky I was to still be here.

"The piece of metal went across my left eye and was embedded in my right eye. If that had been slightly higher or lower, I mightn't have been here today."

A year in hospital: Tom O'Mahony, who was injured in a terrorist attack in Spain when he was 10 years old, at his home in Rathmines. Photo: Arthur Carron
A year in hospital: Tom O'Mahony, who was injured in a terrorist attack in Spain when he was 10 years old, at his home in Rathmines. Photo: Arthur Carron

For the doctors at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the casualties of bomb blasts were all too familiar in the Troubles, as were the victims of shootings and other types of paramilitary violence.

Professor Rab Mollan, who served for decades as a surgeon at the hospital, knows what it is like to deal with a bomb such as that in Manchester.

He dealt with children and adults who had been caught in blasts, including those with shrapnel injuries.

"Children can bounce back from these tragedies and they heal very quickly," says Prof Mollan.

"If they have a disability as a result of the bomb, they often cope much better than adults and tend to get on with life."

Claire Bowes believes it was "the stubbornness of being a teenager" that allowed her to adjust to her new life without sight.

"Nobody tells a 15-year-old that they are not going to do something.

"I was determined to show people that I could do things. I was also determined that I was not going to let the people who planted the bomb ruin my life."

But of course it was not easy for Claire as she tried to rebuild her life.

She could no longer read and had to learn how to touch-type in order to continue her school studies.

"I even had to relearn how to make a cup of tea, and find my way around the house. I had to organise my clothes, so I knew where everything was."

When her friends went back to school in September, she was bored, and wanted to go back as well. She wanted things to return to normal.

Claire was able to return after Halloween and fitted back into the class. "My friends were a great support and included me in everything," she says. "I still went to teenage discos afterwards. I still have the same friends today.

"My parents were just happy that I had survived, but they did not wrap me in cotton wool. They allowed me to get on with my life."

Bringing the community together

Claire believes that the bomb helped to bring the community in Omagh together.

She says that there is now more integration between both sides of the religious divide.

After what had happened to her, she received help from total strangers. Richard Moore, who had been blinded by a rubber bullet fired by a British soldier in Derry in 1972, contacted her and travelled to Omagh to offer her support and advice.

"That was so helpful because I had never met a blind person before."

After the bomb, Claire had some counselling, but she believes the psychological effects did not really hit home until some time afterwards.

"From the time the bomb happened I was afraid to stay in the house on my own or sleep in a room on my own, and that went on for a few years. I was too scared to be on my own. I also didn't want to use a cane to get around."

When she was 17, Claire had cognitive behavioural therapy, which is often used for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She says this helped her to overcome her fears, and reason in her head that there was little chance of an incident such as this happening to her again.

"Now I have no problem being on my own in the house, and sometimes I am happy to have a bit of time to myself."

She then trained with a guide dog and learned how to get around with a cane.

"I still had ambitions and a life to live, and I was determined that I would make the most of it - and do what I wanted to do."

Music had always been a passion, and she was able to resume playing the piano, learning off pieces by ear.

"It was not too difficult because you don't look at the keys much when you are playing anyway."

After doing her A-levels, Claire studied music at Queen's University.

Claire got a job as a liaison officer with the Royal National Institute of Blind People, offering support and advice to those who have lost their sight.

She enjoyed the job, but wanted to fulfil her ambition to set up a music school.

"I opened my music academy in 2013, and thankfully it is going really well."

She has known her husband Ryan since they were both children. They started going out in the year after the bomb, and have been together ever since.

Final straw

He is a computer specialist who now helps train blind people in the use of technology.

Surprisingly perhaps, Claire is not angry with the perpetrators of the Omagh bomb from the Real IRA, but occasionally she does still feel angry that she cannot see.

"Like Manchester, it should never have happened," she says of the bomb that really marked the end of Troubles. "Omagh was the final straw and I think things have moved on here since then."

Claire suffered the effects of the Omagh blast as a child, but she now reflects on what happened in Manchester as a parent.

"My oldest child is eight and one of the first victims of the bomb named in Manchester was an eight-year-old. That just seems incomprehensible really."

Bomb survivor, Tom O'Mahony, Dublin

Most of us reacted with horror at the news of the bomb in ­Manchester that ­targeted children and teenagers, but Dubliner Tom O'Mahony had a stronger reason than most to recoil.

When he was 10 years old, he and his mother were caught up in a bomb attack by the Basque terrorist group ETA. Both suffered burns and other injuries. Tom's recovery was very slow.

Now 31, Tom has an inkling how the children injured in the Manchester blast may react.

"The little kids won't have a clue what's going on," he said. "So many will end up in hospital. It's going to be very difficult for them to deal with."

Tom and his mother were on holiday in 1996 in the Spanish resort town of Salou, on the north-eastern coast. It was high season and the sun was very hot. Too hot. They decided to cut their holiday short and return to Dublin a few days early. That turned out to be a fateful decision.

At the small regional airport, they walked past a bathroom at the precise point that ETA detonated a bomb hidden there. They took the worst of the impact. Though it's not clear exactly what happened, Tom must have been lifted off his feet. In any case, his femur was broken, he had other shrapnel injuries and extensive burns.

"It happened in a split second," said Tom. "When I opened my eyes I was on the ground and everything was covered in dust. I couldn't see anything. It felt like I was in the middle of a dream."

As he lay there stunned, a man ran up to him, picked him up and carried him outside the airport. The man laid him on the ground and then left him to go back inside and see who else he could help. That man, he later discovered, was not an employee of the airport or from the police, he was just another tourist. Left alone, Tom drifted in and out of consciousness. He doesn't remember much more from the airport. But he does remember that he couldn't feel any pain whatsoever, although he should have done. He had third-degree burns all down his left side as well as his broken leg. Eventually he blacked out.

It was two full days later when the 10-year-old awoke again. By then he was in a hospital and his mother was beside him. She had been taken to a different hospital and had a tough time finding her son. His mother also had injuries, including burns. Tom says she still has scars.

The Spanish hospital inserted a bolt into his broken leg and gave him, as a parting gift, three small pieces of metal that had been extracted from his body.

He remembers one was "like a ball bearing". It had been in his back.

Within a few days they were travelling home to Ireland by air ambulance, their journey luckily covered by insurance.

However, Tom's ordeal was only starting. He was transferred to Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, where he would remain for a full year. His burns healed quickly and left no scars. But something about the way his leg was treated in Spain, he believes, led him to experience repeated infections around the wound. Again and again he hoped to be discharged but it never happened. He spent Christmas on the ward.

"The bomb was the easiest bit really," he now reflects. "It was the time in hospital that was the hardest. I just wanted to sit in my own house and watch television."

Tom says he would worry in particular for girls affected by bomb injuries. "For a boy like me, a few scars are really regarded as okay; but for girls it's something totally different."

He says he still isn't sure why the whole Spanish incident happened. His understanding was that a phone warning had been given but the airport hadn't been cleared.

He says the attack doesn't dominate his thoughts. But when a bomb attack happens, and especially if children are involved, it comes back to him.

The bombing was one of dozens carried out in Spain over several decades by the ETA groups determined to seek independence for the Basque area. More than 30 people, mostly British tourists, were injured in the airport attack that affected Tom and his mother. Over the years of ETA attacks, thousands more were left with injuries.

@cathomahony

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