‘He never got over it’

By Gemma Burns

Every year for the past decade Pat Irvine has written an open letter in the North Belfast News to Robert James Campbell, the only man ever convicted in relation to the McGurk’s massacre.

This year it will be different, because she will also be posting the letter to his home.

Pat said 40 years after her 53-year-old mother was killed in the bomb, she wants Campbell to sit down and tell her the truth about the bomb that killed 15 people and robbed her of her mother.

She was 14 years old at the time of her mother’s death and says she can remember vividly the hours leading up to the bombing and the devastating effect it had on her father John, who spent the rest of his life wracked with guilt that out of their table of four enjoying a quiet drink in the bar, he was the only survivor.

“That day I was out walking about the streets of the New Lodge with my friend Catherine. We would walk round the Barrack, the long streets, it was just something you did at that age,” she said

“Usually round every corner you would meet a foot patrol, but that night we saw no one at all. The place was so quiet; there were no lights on or anything. Looking back, the silence was deafening.”

Pat said after the bomb exploded she and her friend watched as a “hill of people” tried to clear the rubble from the site of the bar, never knowing that her parents Kathleen and John were buried underneath it.

“I remember running down one of the long streets and as we turned onto North Queen Street there was a crowd standing at Tiger’s Bay cheering and singing ‘bits and pieces, bits and pieces’, that is something that will always stay with me.”

It was only hours later when her parents didn’t return home to the house they shared with John’s mother, Pat and her older brother Sam, then 16, that they realised they had been in the bar.

“It was only that I overheard people who had called into the house saying to my grandmother ‘God help them two wee children now their mother is gone’ that I knew,” she said.

“Later that night we went up to the hospital to see my father, I’d never seen a grown man cry until then when he was told my mother had died. He signed himself out that night even though he had injuries himself.”

The following evening as the family waked Kathleen, the British Army came into the house and said they had to search the coffin.

“My father just got up very quietly and took the officer outside and spoke to him, you could hear him on the walkie talkie to someone and then he came in the living room again, saluted my father and left. My father had been in the army during World war Two. The next day they sent a wreath.”

Kathleen Irvine’s Requiem Mass was held in St Patrick’s in Donegall Street the Tuesday after the bombing.

“I remember the funeral procession walking along and there was a crowd gathered at the bottom of the Shankill and they threw stones at the coffins. I was hit in the back of my head and was split open.”

Pat says her father never recovered from that night.

“He never really liked to talk about it but I knew from overhearing that as he lay there he heard people crying and praying, he was shouting for my mother lying under the rubble. It was something that never left him, years later if he was sleeping he would have nightmares and shout her name and push his hands in front of him, that was him pushing the rubble off.

“That night he was at the table with my mother and Sarah and Edward Kennan and he was the only one who survived. He was left with the guilt of that for the rest of his life, he never got over it.”

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