My personal Aftermath
Published: July 2009
Ruth Dudley Edwards tells Stephanie Bell how confronting the horror of the Omagh atrocity for her book left her needing the help of a psychoanalyst
When Ruth Dudley Edwards first got involved in helping the families of the Omagh bomb victims in their fight for justice, she had no intention of writing a book. In fact, the celebrated author, historian and journalist strongly resisted the idea when it was put to her two years into the campaign.
“When it was suggested to me I said ‘No’ and I meant it. I really fought it,” she says. “At that stage I had been involved in the campaign for two-and-a-half years and I felt I was too close to it and writing about it would distress me too much.
“All sorts of arguments about why it made sense that I should do it were put to me and I finally caved in.’
Fortunately she did relent and the result is Aftermath, an authorative and very compelling account ofhow the families’ lives were torn apart by the bomb and which also charts their brave and challenging fight for justice.
It is a battle that Ruth has been involved in right from the start and for which she put her own life on bold for nearly 10 years, devoting her time and energy to helping secure justice for the families.
And just as she feared when first approached to write the book, the emotional toll of immersing herself in the harrowing details of the victims’ suffering proved too much for even this seasoned journalist.
Ruth reveals that her research into the horrific injuries of those caught up and killed in the bomb caused her so much trauma that she had to seek professional help.
“When I read the inquest reports I had nightmares;’ she admits. “I am a crime writer but it is satirical crime. I’m very squeamish and can’t deal with anything too gory.
“I had to deal with the awful reality of what happened in Omagh and it gave me nightmares. I had to get it out and I couldn’t tell my friends so I paid to see a psychoanalyst to help me exorcise my dreams.”
The extent to which Ruth was emotionally involved was again revealed last month at the landmark court ruling in which all four Real IRA defendants — Colm Murphy, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell and Seamus Daly — were found responsible for the atrocity.
Having sat through months and months of tedious court hearings, when it became clear that the court was set to rule in the victims’ favour Ruth was unable to contain her tears.
She said: “About 20 minutes before the judgment, I could tell by the expressions of the legal team and by the tone of what was being said that the result was going to be in our favour. I hardly ever cry but tears rolled down my cheeks. For the first time in 10 years I saw joy on the faces of the families. You have to
have had heartache to experience joy at that level.”
It was the first time anywhere in the world that victims of terrorism have directly confronted those responsible through the courts.
The families of the 31 people who died, including unborn twins, had raised millions and overcame huge obstacles to bring the case to court, making legal history in the process and succeeding in doing what governments and security forces have been unable to do.
Ruth has been a lynchpin of the campaign from the outset and has had complete access to everything and everyone involved in the writing of Aftermath.
Already on the book shelves just three weeks after the historic victory, Ruth — who has written 22 books – says of Aftermath: “No book mattered more to me than this one.
“I wanted to show what terrorism actually does. I wanted people to get to know these people who went out for a happy day and to see what happened to them. People were maimed, others just two yards away were killed, some were traumatised. I wanted people to see what happens to the families and to know that it breaks families up.
“Young Aidan Gallagher’s grandfather never spoke for 10 days after he heard his grandson had died.
“There is nothing romantic about terrorism.”
Ruth, who was born in Dublin into what she describes as “an Irish Catholic nationalist family”, studied in Cambridge and lives in London. So what made her get so personally involved in the Omagh story?
“I had friends in Omagh who were almost killed in the bomb so I suppose I was predisposed to it.
“My friend drove off with her two young children just seconds before the bomb went off. They weren’t injured but they were damaged. Afterwards, the three-year-old boy was getting his friends to play hospital and corpses, the five-year-old girl had nightmares for months and their mother has survivor’s guilt. I always cared about the terrible things terrorism does to people and this made it personal for me.”
However, it was a remarkable twist of fate that led to Ruth’s direct involvement with the campaign from the very beginning, when it was no more than an idea of solicitor Victor Barker, who lost his son James in the blast.
Ruth says: “I got a call from a crimewriter I know. It was in 2000, two years after the bomb.
“Victor had also been at Cambridge and during an Old Boys’ Reunion asked this person if he knew anyone who might be able to help him get justice for James. Because I was the only person he knew with lrish connections he rang me up.
”Victor is such an indefatigable person and when I got in touch he said he had the Idea of taking the civil case against the bombers but no one would take him seriously. Even though it was fatal for my peace of mind for the next eight years I felt I had to help.”
Drawing on her many contacts as a journalist and author, the campaign started to gather support and momentum and the task of raising funds to pay for the case got underway.
“It was torture trying to raise the enormous sums of money needed. We had an unlikely hero in the then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson and we’d never have made it without him. He donated £10,000 of his own money and put pressure on Tony Blair, even after he left Northern Ireland, to give legal aid to the families.
“At the end of the day the relatives were not people who knew how to access power, they were just ordinary people who decided to stand up to the terrorists.”
Ruth has been a campaigner against terrorism throughout her career and has also been known to take a sympathetic approach to unionists.
She drew criticism after writing a book on the Orange Order called The Faithful Tribe, seen as supportive of the Order.
She says: “My father was a historian and believed the history of Ireland should be about all the Irish and I was brought up in a world in which my parents had Protestant and catholic friends so I was never a bigot.
“My grandmother, though, was an insane republican who had a picture of Hitler at the bottom of her bed. I learnt from her how completely uncompromising people can be.
“I try to understand whatever subject I am writing about. My stance on a united Ireland is that if most people want it then fine, but if they don’t then they should not be truncated into it.
“My views have made me persona non grata among certain people in Dublin. It has amazed me how annoyed the nationalist establishment has been by what I say. I strongly believe that people should not be bullied.”
With Aftermath finally in the shops after eight years, Ruth has one last word on the terrorists who were responsible for the Omagh atrocity.
She says; “I hope they will go after them for the money, they should go after it because that is the whole point — to make their lives uncomfortable.
“They have now been shown to be murderers and they should be treated as pariahs in their communities.
“I would hope their neighbours will think about it and their families will say ‘Maybe our dad, son, brother isn’t a hero, maybe he’s a murderer, a torturer.”
“I hope the families’ victory will give other families the inspiration to pursue justice.”
This vital, powerful book tells a story of loss, resilience and terrorism… Distinguished historian and journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards was centrally involved in the bringing of this Omagh civil case. In her impressive and vivid book, Aftermath, she becomes the families’ crusading chronicler… this book…recounts a remarkable story of victims’ resilience and vindication, and deserves to be very widely read.
The Omagh families have not only held terrorists to account for the death of their loved ones; their legacy is a new legal remedy for victims of violence everywhere.
For anyone interested in this chilling area of recent Irish history, Aftermath is recommended reading.
…a remarkable and moving story, told in masterly fashion by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Her narrative grips from the start. It is as compelling as a thriller and displays the sympathetic imagination of a great novel.
A remarkable and moving story, told in masterly fashion by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Her narrative grips from the start. It is as compelling as a thriller and displays the sympathetic imagination of a great novel… This is an extraordinary and uplifting story of how a group of ordinary people managed to get the justice they sought. It is beautifully told.
Ruth Dudley Edwards’ account of the Omagh bomb is all the more heartbreaking for her mastery of the small human details… Its portrayal of cruelty and suffering is relevant far beyond Ireland.
This vital, powerful book tells a story of loss, resilience and terrorism… this book…recounts a remarkable story of victims’ resilience and vindication, and deserves to be very widely read.
The merit of Ruth Dudley Edwards’s valuable book about the Omagh families’ “pursuit of justice” is that it meticulously chronicles how they did so, charting the enormous efforts involved in raising large amounts of money and getting the case under way.