Resilience of '72 deserves respect
The publication of the Saville Report on the Bloody Sunday murders brings us back to one of the darkest hours in Irish history. Because 1972 was not just the year of Bloody Sunday, it was the year when the conflict in the North escalated to its most horrific level.
Some 479 people were killed that year. To put that number into context, in no other year of the Troubles were more than 300 people killed. Between 1980 and 1994, a time which still seemed nightmarish enough, only three times did the death toll rise above 100. The floodgates opened in 1972 and it seemed as though a full-blown war was taking shape.
One thing that has always fascinated me is that, amid all the death and mayhem, the GAA still managed to complete that year's Ulster Senior Football Championship. What must have it been like for the players and supporters, of the six Northern counties in particular, as the world descended into madness around them? How did they keep going?
That they did is perhaps another proof of a resilience that we underestimate, just as we underestimate how severe the trauma of living through such times must have been. If I had a euro for every time I've heard someone say that the gang above in the North never stop giving out, I wouldn't need to be writing this column. But think of the apocalyptic levels of complaint down here when we had a few floods and a bit of frost last winter. I'm not sure how well we'd have coped with a year like 1972.
The Ulster championship of that year opened on June 4 with Tyrone defeating Armagh 0-13 to 1-7 at Dungannon and Derry beating Fermanagh at Irvinestown. Fourteen people were killed that week, including two British soldiers killed by an IRA landmine near the Fermanagh town of Rosslea.
When Derry beat Antrim 2-9 to 2-5 at Ballinascreen on June 25 the newspapers noted that Antrim were short key players who had emigrated to America, Australia and Zambia. Perhaps not surprisingly given that there were 306 Troubles-related deaths in the county that year.
It was a year when the Scottish and Welsh rugby teams refused to travel to Dublin, Dublin!, because of the Troubles. Yet on July 2 Irvinestown drew a record crowd as 8,000 people travelled over the border for the match between Donegal and Cavan. The match was a draw, Donegal 0-12 Cavan 2-6.
On July 9 when Tyrone defeated Derry 1-8 to 0-9 in Dungannon to reach their first Ulster final since 1957, the spectators would have heard that 11 people had been killed in Belfast that day, five of them by British Army snipers in what became known as the Springhill massacre, an incident whose victims included a 13-year-old, a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old. Their relatives, like the people of Derry, have spent years looking for a public inquiry. They probably won't get one. There's a limited supply of contrition out there.
Perhaps not surprisingly it was a team from below the border who won the Ulster title, Donegal lifting their first provincial crown after a 2-13 to 1-11 win over Tyrone at Clones. At midfield for Tyrone was Frank McGuigan, still a minor. He inspired Tyrone to Ulster U21 and minor titles that year. Full-forward on the minor team was a young man named Mickey Harte. Tyrone went to the All-Ireland minor decider for the first time since 1948 where they lost 3-11 to 2-11 against Cork, whose corner-forward Jimmy Barry-Murphy contributed 2-1. In the week following the final, another 18 people would die, the majority of them Catholic civilians killed by the British Army and Loyalist paramilitaries. By the time McGuigan and Harte reached their final year at U21 level there had been 99 deaths in Tyrone due to the Troubles.
Perhaps the Ulster championship seemed trivial to people that year given what was going around them. Yet they still kept travelling to the games and the games kept getting played. So perhaps the championship gave them some momentary respite, provided a world where for 70 minutes the bomb and the bullet could be forgotten. Perhaps on the road home, they talked about football and tried to shut out the news of carnage and catastrophe. We can't know, down here.
But, in the week when justice was finally done in Derry, it's worth pondering the achievement of those who kept the GAA going that year when the fear and the worry must have at times seemed insurmountable.
Thank God it's all over.