Poetic license and the killing of Jim Reilly
It changed the course of the Troubles. On January 30, 1972, the sway of the civil rights associations was replaced by the militancy of the Provisional IRA. That’s the day the British sent in the paras—an elite paratrooper unit of the armed forces—to help ‘police’ the 15,000 strong group of protesters who were marching against internment in Derry.
Let’s be clear: this was not a kumbaya, peace sign waving lovefest march for human rights. This was a group of angry, disenfranchised people who had had enough of Ulster rule and the imposing of un-democratic measures like internment.
Internment gave the authorities the power to detain ANYONE without charges.
Previous civil rights association marches had been the source of conflict and tension between Republican marchers and Ulster police. The Derry march was not likely to be free of similar conflict and tension but, by days end, no one thought 13 people would be lying dead and 15 others seeking medical attention at area hospitals.
So, here’s what happened. The protesters gathered on the Creggan and began marching toward the Guildhall in the city centre. Police and soldiers were ready and turned the protesters away from their intended destination—mostly because a counter-protest was slated to arrive at the same location, at the same time, which meant all hell would break loose between the two groups. When the authorities stopped the advancing protesters, most diverted toward Free Derry Corner while a passionate minority started hurling rocks at the cops and soldiers. The authorities responded with water cannons, rubber bullets and CS gas—a pretty standard response in the early days of the Troubles.
At one point, the order was given to the paras: arrest as many protesters as you can. Perhaps the effort to detain so many protesters triggered something in paras. Some soldiers say they heard shots fired at them (this was later proven false). At least one military officer disobeyed orders and brought his men into the Bogside. Whatever caused the first soldier to fire the first bullet is irrelevant—the results were clear: 21 of the paras opened fire on the crowd in the area of Rossville Flats, discharging 108 live rounds, killing 13 and injuring 15 (one of whom died six months after Bloody Sunday and is acknowledged as the 14th victim of that deadly afternoon in January).
For years British investigators exonerated the soldiers for opening fire. However, mounting pressure by the families and social justice crusaders resulted in an apology from British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 where he admitted that the soldiers fired the first shot and that all those who died where unarmed civilians. Later, in 2016, authorities prepared to lay murder charges against Soldier F (the British military upheld their right not to identify the soldier) in the deaths of James Wray and Willian McKinney, as well as the attempted murders of three other men. In 2021, the charges were dropped when the prosecution determined that they did not have a reasonable hope of securing a conviction. While there was a mountain of evidence of what happened that day, perhaps it was the near 50-year gap between the incident and the willingness to consider charging the soldier that led to the dismissal of charges.
This brings us to My Father’s Secret. I do my best in the novel to re-create the tragic events of Bloody Sunday. I created the character Jim Reilly as a Republican nationalist who attended the protest that day along with two of his friends. Reilly encounters the equivalent of a Soldier F, who executes him in Glenfada Park.
For the record, the Bloody Sunday shootings appear, from the accounts I’ve read, to be an exercise in madness and mayhem. Once the shots were fired, people fled while bodies dropped. Most of the shooting happened in the first few minutes with the killing spree ending about 40 minutes after it started. I admit to using poetic license in the killing of Jim Reilly to highlight the power of Bloody Sunday on Irish consciousness. It is fiction—there was no execution witnessed by onlookers. However, soldiers did pick off victims, some of whom were prone when they were shot.
Bloody Sunday is the most significant wound of the Troubles. It marked a shift in militancy that lasted until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 (some say the militancy has never gone away). When tension is allowed to build, and peaceful releases are not discovered, the result is always profound devastation.
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Sean Patrick Dolan's Blog
Sean Patrick Dolan is the author of the thriller, My Father's Secret, inspired by the Air India Bombing.