May 17 was a special date for my family: my father’s birthday.
But for forty years this date has had darker connotations for relatives of the 33 Dublin and Monaghan car bombings victims, for anyone injured in those horrific blasts or for eye witnesses to the human devastation caused in Parnell Street, Talbot Street and South Leinster Street and, later that evening, in Monaghan town.
One cliché constantly peddled about the catalogue of atrocities bundled together under the generic term The Troubles is that “there is no hierarchy of victims”.
This is true in the deeply moving, sparsely-attended vigil held by Dublin Unitarians every Good Friday when they quietly read out the names of every victim of sectarian and political violence.
No name is emphasised and none overlooked. The reality is different. Spokespeople of all shapes of political opinion continually hone in on certain victims whose names are bandied about like a franchise, used to score political points or justify retrospective crimes.
But those who lost loved ones forty years ago, on May 17, 1974, in what remains Ireland’s worst atrocity, are not trying to score points. Behind all the excuses about intelligence and counter-intelligence, of files missing or inaccessible, they still seek that most stark and rare commodity: the truth.
Forty years ago my father, a sailor enjoying a day’s shore leave, was having a celebratory pint with his daughter in town when bombs went off around him. If C.I.E. had not been on strike, he would have been queuing instead for the Finglas bus, directly opposite where the first bomb killed 10 people. These ranged from two infants, Jacqueline and Ann Marie O’Brien, and their young parents to an elderly First World War veteran.
The victims were this random and indiscriminate. A doctor recounted seeing “a woman decapitated… and a man dying with an iron bar through his abdomen”. At the height of the Ulster Workers Strike, the UVF (who only claimed responsibility in 1993) used the shattered limbs of passers-by to score a sick political point.
May 17 ranks with other dark Dublin days like February 14 - the anniversary of the Stardust Fire - which pass unnoticed, except by families still ambushed by grief. When Yorkshire Television made a documentary about the bombings, they called it The Forgotten Massacre. Apart from a simple monument on Talbot Street, it remains forgotten except when a major anniversary occurs.
Ireland has changed in 40 years. As a society we have seen how the culture of secrecy was an appalling cancer effected almost every institution in Ireland, from the church to the police.
This government made spurious promises about transparency when entering office. Most politicians now knocking on our doors are making promises they can’t deliver.
What they can do, if enough people insist, is open up the files about this forgotten massacre. The families traumatised by those events may never know justice, but - even if forty years too late - they deserve to know the truth.