Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 25, 2005
Daughters Mariya and Katie stood with me in front of the small restaurant while husband Art disappeared eastward on High Street. It was now 2:30 in the afternoon, several hours after we left Claremorris in Ireland's west. Our destination was a bed and breakfast on a dairy farm outside of Cookstown in Northern Ireland. I had expected Art to push straight through, but he must have remembered that we three girls have stomachs that are more demanding when empty than his.
Art said he'd make a quick survey down Omagh's main street to see what other eating options were available, while we watched the hubbub of people filling the sidewalks of County Tyrone's capital.
We could have been in a similar town in the United States. On this warm Saturday of summer, some people were bustling about, intent on completing certain tasks on a day off from work. Others walked slowly with youngsters in tow.
A block to the west, High Street ended in front of the courthouse. A parade of vintage tractors that had formed up in front of it made its way slowly toward us, the drivers waving to no one in particular.
From all accounts, the Saturday of Aug. 15 almost 10 years before was very much like the one I was watching. Perhaps the main difference was that with school approaching, more children than usual were in town with their parents to buy school uniforms for the coming term. Some exchange students from Spain were among those shoppers.
But events had already been set in motion that day that would make it a very different Saturday from the one we experienced. Around 2 that afternoon, a red Vauxhall, the British equivalent of a Chevrolet, drove down High Street in the same direction Art had gone. Its driver parked it in front of S. D. Kells, a store that sold clothes, including school uniforms. The car had been stolen three days earlier in County Monaghan to the south and the license plate had been changed. During the intervening days, it had been packed with fertilizer and fuel oil to form a 300-pound bomb.
A half hour later, calls were placed, one to a television station in Belfast and another to a hospital, warning that a bomb had been placed near the courthouse. Conflicting information was given as to when it would go off, but police quickly began moving people away from the area. Most headed east on High Street . . . directly toward the Vauxhall.
At 3:10 the bomb exploded. More than 250 people were injured and 29 people died, a disproportionate number of them being youngsters.
The Omagh bombing was the most destructive single incident of the modern conflict between those who want to see Northern Ireland become part of the Irish Republic and those who wish for it to remain British. It apparently had been an attempt to derail the progress being made by former Sen. George Mitchell who, at President Bill Clinton's urging, had been acting as a negotiator.
The "Troubles," as the locals call it, began four centuries earlier. King James, the British monarch whose administration gave us one of the best-known versions of the Bible and the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, had invited Scots from the overpopulated lowlands to cross the Irish Sea and settle in Ireland's north. He granted them Irish land, displacing those who had lived on it for centuries.
Later monarchs, who were less supportive, caused these Scots-Irish to feel isolated, hardening their feelings and actions toward the Irish. And the Irish responded in kind.
The Omagh bombing was immediately denounced by both sides. But efforts to bring the perpetrators to trial have resulted in only one conviction - and it is being appealed. Most witnesses are unwilling to testify. Some who initially gave evidence have suddenly forgotten what they knew.
Art returned, having walked past where the S. D. Kells store had stood, past where the red Vauxhall had been parked. No signs remain of what happened 10 years before.
Art told us that while there were a few options, the restaurant we had chosen seemed as promising as any.
After finishing our fish and chips, we walked to our car parked near the courthouse. On this day, Omagh, a place about half the size of Manhattan, seemed like any other country town.
Northern Ireland has become remarkably peaceful the last few years. Its crime rates are some of the lowest in the Western world and prosperity has blossomed.
So while formal justice for the Omagh bombing and similar atrocities that occurred in nearby places may never be realized, perhaps forgetting is precisely what is required. Centuries of cruel acts between peoples equally convinced of their positions can never be made right in a courtroom. Doing what must be done so they never happen again is a far better outcome.