Tuesday 22 October 2019

Peter re-lives horror of Dundalk bombing

Dundalk musician speaks exclusively of living with memories of loyalist attack

Peter O’Connor visits the memorial to the victims of the 1975 Loyalist bombing on Crowe Street
Peter O’Connor visits the memorial to the victims of the 1975 Loyalist bombing on Crowe Street
Peter Kavanagh’s picture of the aftermath of the explosion.

Margaret Roddy

Dundalk-born musician Peter O'Connor was just a nineteen-year-old student when he was caught up in the loyalist bomb planted outside Kay's Tavern, Crowe Street on December 19, 1975, in which two people lost their lives and twenty people were injured.

A member of one of the town's best known musical families, he sustained horrific injuries and spent months in hospital.

Now, for the first time, he tells his story publicly as he takes part in a new theatrical production which gives voice to those whose lives were torn apart by The Troubles.

'Blood Red Lines', which comes to An Táin Arts Centre on Saturday night, was devised by BAFTA winning film and theatre director Robert Rae during a six month residency in Newry as part of an ambitious EU PEACE IV funded arts programme with The Playhouse Theatre, Derry and its Theatre and Peace building Academy.

Taking part in the production has, Peter admits, caused him considerable anguish as he re-lives the trauma of being caught up in the Dundalk bombing.

Like the rest of his family, Peter was very much involved in the local traditional music scene. He was a first year student at the then Dundalk Regional Technical College and had been taking part in a fundraiser with the Students Union on that fateful day on December 19, 1975.

'We were doing a 24 hour fast in aid of Concern and the Simon Community and had been busking and collecting money at The Square,' he recalls.

'I didn't go to Marks Bar, which was my regular as I was fasting and didn't want to be slagged, so went on down to Kay's.'

That was his first time in the pub which faces the Town Hall. He wasn't in the bar long when a bomb, left in a car parked outside by Loyalist murder gang, exploded at around 6 o'clock.

In the aftermath of the blast he grabbed Hugh Watters, a tailor who gone into the pub to deliver a parcel of clothes which he had altered, to help him out of the premises.

'I'd never been in the pub before and didn't know where I was going,' he says. 'The front of the pub was burning and Hugh said we could go out the back.'

As they were make their way to the rear of the premises, Peter realised that Hugh was badly injured.

'I realised that he was past help and I cradled him in my arms.'

Terrified that they were trapped and that he was going to burnt alive, Peter tried to knock himself unconscious. He came around to see the flashing lights of the emergency services and was helped out of the burning building by a fireman.

'I felt dreadful for having to leave Hugh behind me and told the fireman that he was still inside.'

Peter remembers little about being taken to the Louth County Hospital but says that as the medical staff began cutting his clothes off, he realised that he was seriously injured.

He had, in fact, sustained extensive burns, including first degree burns 4th degree burns to 7 per cent of his body and 23 per cent 3rd degree burns, and 2nd degree burns to about half of his body. He also had glass cuts from the explosion and concussion injuries from trying to knock himself out.

He was subsequently transferred to Dr Stevens Hospital in Dublin and after being sent home, had to readmitted to the Louth County Hospital as he developed gangrene.

He recalls having an 'out of body' experience when he could hear the doctors gathered round him discussing whether they needed to amputate his hands. When his parents next went to visit him, he told them what he had heard and his mother Rose ensured his plea was listened to.

After his eventual release from hospital, Peter left Dundalk as he didn't want to be known as 'the bomb fella'.

'I said to myself that I wanted to do something good, so I went to work with the Student Christian Movement in Belfast.'

He subsequently moved to the Netherlands and lived in Amsterdam, teaching and playing music while running a decorating and building business. He returned to Ireland with his Dutch partner Els, running an award-winning eco-lodge in Lismore, Co Waterford for a number of years.

Getting involved in this production has forced him to relive the horror of the bombing and opened old scars.

'I was warned beforehand but I didn't realise how bad it would be,' he admits. 'It's extremely tough - far tougher that I thought.'

Peter is one of two people who were caught up in violence during The Troubles who take to the stage - the other being a former British soldier who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress, who survived to tell their stories.

'The rest of the cast are all family members of victims,' he says. 'At least I was able to recover, although my medical rehabilitation was very, very slow, and to be honest, an awful painful experience.'

He believes that he too suffers from Post Traumatic Stress although he has never had a formal diagnosis.

The lack of support given to those injured in the Dundalk, Monaghan and Dublin bombings is something which he still feels raw about.

He feels let down by the State. 'As I put it in the play, the State has three functions, to protect its citizens, to education its citizens and to provide medical health care for its citizens and my State has let me down on two out of three counts.'

He has never been offered any psychological assessment or counselling, despite suffering from suicidal tendencies in the past which he believes are rooted in the horror he experienced as a young man.

'Abandoned is the word that comes to mind. I am a embarrassment to the State, a reminder of the war up north.'

As the others involved in the productions are the family members of victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland, he appreciates that he is alive to tell his story.

'I've never talked about it with my siblings and they have never spoken of it,' he says.

He has, however, been involved with the Justice for the Forgotten group, although he says that living in Waterford has prevented him from taking a more active role.

On one occasion he travelled to Dublin to meet with TDs in Buswells Bar, across from Dail Eireann.

'Hugh Watters' daughter Margaret English was also there,' he recalls. 'We got talking and I realised no one had told her how her father died so I had to explain to her that he died in my arms in the flames.'

He hopes that there will be a good attendance at Friday night's performance and that the politicians invited will turn up.

'It's really, really important that people see this play, particularly in the present climate as we don't want another generation of suffer what we went through.'

The Argus