By Mike Faricy
The town of Omagh, population 17,300, lies about 70 miles west of Belfast. Nestled in highlands of the Tyrone countryside with the Sperrin Mountains visible to the north some days and three small rivers running through it, it is a picture postcard market town. A stone courthouse sits atop the hill in town, spires from three churches soaring behind and Market Street leading downhill to the retail district of two story shops and restaurants. As a market town, families come here to do their shopping. It’s August 15, two weeks before school begins and the shops are filled with families buying supplies and uniforms, preparing for the coming school year. It’s raining.
It was a sunny day ten short years ago in 1998 when a car bomb tore through this market town indiscriminately murdering men, women and children, lots of children. Depending on how you count, the total is either 29, 31 or 32. One man was killed in an ambulance crash while rushing to a Belfast hospital and a set of eight month unborn twin girls died along with their 1 year old sister, 30 year old mother and Grandmother. A group of school children from Donegal and the Spanish students they were hosting got caught up in the madness along with countless families out for a Saturday afternoon. A carnival was scheduled to come through town later in the afternoon and families were everywhere. The blast was so ferocious that some of the bodies were never found. The list of injured and maimed runs into the hundreds.
We know that in 1998 at approximately 2:00 on that August Saturday afternoon two men parked a stolen, red Vauxhall Cavalier in front of S D Kells, a clothing shop, selling among other things, school uniforms. The car was packed with 300 pounds of fertilizer based explosives attached to a semtex trigger. At 2:30 a call was placed to Ulster television warning of a car bomb set to explode in 30 minutes in front of the Omagh court house. Ulster television informed the RUC who in turn warned Omagh authorities. A second call was made approximately two minutes later to Ulster television warning that the bomb was set to detonate in fifteen minutes. A third call was placed to Samaritans Charity specifying the courthouse. Amazingly the police were able to cordon off the area around the courthouse and move people to the safety of Market Street while they began searching for the bomb.
At 3:10, 500 yards from the courthouse, the front wall of the S D Kells store on Market Street blew into the building collapsing the roof onto the top floor, across the street at the furniture store the force of the blast blew pieces of furniture through the rear of the building. Twenty people died instantly, only five of whom could be identified that day, but then children don’t usually carry a lot of identification.
The Real IRA, who ever that is, claimed responsibility then issued a cease fire a short time later. World wide condemnation rolled in and the Real IRA issued an apology. It’s believed the perpetrators are known, but solid evidence is lacking for a conviction. Fearing the invocation of double jeopardy, allowing an individual to be tried only once for a specific crime, the authorities have tried no one. One week later was designated as a day of reflection across Ireland. Vigils were held north and south with somewhere between 40 and 60,000 people attending the vigil in Omagh.
Today, August 15, ten years hence, there is a memorial service, televised across north and south. It is religiously ecumenical and delivered in English, Irish and Spanish, with a host of dignitaries sitting on a stage. The names of the murdered are read. At exactly 3:10 a memorial at the sight of the bomb blast is unveiled. The memorial houses a large Tyrone crystal carved in the shape of a harp, from a block away 31 mirrors located in a park of remembrance and rotating on a computer timer so they move with the sun will continually reflect light into the crystal. The crowd is filled with ordinary people, just like Market Street in 1998, although looking around there are a fair amount of canes, more crutches than usual, the occasional pinned up empty coat sleeve and a good degree of facial scarring. At 3:10, with the memorial unveiling, there is supposed to be a minute of silence. The town is filled with thousands, Catholics and Protestants, Irish, Spanish and even an American; it’s supposed to be quiet but you can hear the sobbing, and it’s raining.