How a Christian boy lost his faith on a warm summer day in Northern Ireland
I lost my Christian faith on 15 August, 1998, in the village of Omagh in County Tyrone around 3:00pm.
It was one of those summer days where you could be glad to be a 10-year-old. Sunny and warm, a rarity in Ireland where we get clouds and rain nearly every morning. I was celebrating my recent progression to open champion in Irish dance, the highest level achievable. It was only three weeks till my 11th birthday and my mate Johnny, also a competitive Irish dancer, invited me to his home for the weekend. My grandparents were nervous about it at first. It wasn’t as though I was camping out with one of my cousins across the county. Omagh was nearly an hour away. In addition, it was in Northern Ireland, and my grandparents had lived three decades in the shadow of the Troubles. But after much begging and cajoling, and with my grandfather’s reminder that Omagh had been virtually untouched by the violence, my grandmother finally relented.
That Saturday, Johnny and I insisted on being allowed to go to the town centre unaccompanied. Market Street was a popular tourist destination and we wanted to see the sights and play with the lads. Naturally, Johnny’s parents refused our perfectly reasonable request. But after much begging and cajoling (a skill we had perfected down to an art form) they agreed and let us go, provided that Johnny’s 14-year-old sister Maeve accompanied us.
It was every lad’s dream. We played tag and pop-around-the-barrel with a group of local lads, as Maeve stood with her girlfriends and sniffed over our desperate immaturity. Johnny and I kept a close eye on her, and when her back was turned for a moment, we scampered off, headed down toward the courthouse to have our own adventure, congratulating ourselves on our daring and bravado.
We hadn’t gotten 50 yards down the side way when we heard the car bomb go off behind us.
We stared at each other for long moments, the shock turning our faces ashy white. Johnny sprinted off first, headed into the carnage, screaming for his sister. I was immediately behind him, but we lost sight of each other the moment we entered the boiling mass of people. The smoke stung my eyes as I pushed my way through, the fires that had broken out sending people into a panic. I stepped over falling, crying people, bloodied shrapnel, bits of masonry, bits of bodies. I fought the crowds, screaming for Maeve, for Johnny, for anyone, my voice lost amongst the hundreds raised, all crying for Jack, for Aodhan, Alan, Mary, Osla, Aoife, Michael, Padraig, Brigit. A swell of people pushed me to the cobblestones, and I lay there stunned for a moment, unsure if it was from the impact or from the bloody, charred arm that lay a metre from me.
“Oh god,” I whispered. “Oh god, oh god, oh god.”
But no god heard my prayer, nor did he hear the prayers of hundreds of other people around me screaming for their loved ones. I picked myself up and brushed the dirt from my jacket and trousers, and fought my way back into the crowd. I never prayed again.
I didn’t leave the town centre for another hour. When I did, Johnny was at my side, dusty and red-eyed from the smoke and from the sobbing. I looked down at the road as we stumbled away towards his home where his parents were waiting, oblivious to what had happened until Maeve came home moments before us, hysterical but unharmed. As I pulled my trainers from my feet, I noticed for the first time that the white leather strip above the soles had been stained a dirty, blackened red.
Twenty nine people died in the town centre of Omagh. Twelve of them were children and teenagers.
No one ever ‘officially’ claimed credit for the bombing of Omagh. But the acknowledgement came soon after nonetheless. They called themselves RIRA, the Real Irish Republican Army. They were Christian militants, angry about the recent Good Friday Agreement that had been signed back in April that had called for an unequivocal ceasefire between the opposing Catholic and Protestant forces. They had given the village of Omagh a warning earlier that day. They told them an inaccurate location for a bomb, one that would push the evacuating crowds into the actual target zone.
This was by no means my first encounter with extremist Christianity; it had been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. In Mass, the priest prayed for the deaths of the Protestant oppressors of our Catholic brothers and sisters. On the television, I would see Protestants in the north burning the Tricolour and screaming for the deaths of Catholics. Despite the efforts of the adults to keep what was happening out of sight of the children, we all knew about what was happening in Ireland. Men and women killed for walking out of the wrong church. For marrying someone of the wrong religion. For suspected Loyalist sympathies, for associating with the wrong denomination, for simply being in the way of the true targets, and for no other reason than the Christians wanted some more press. Thousands of bloody, pointless deaths.
I will not step foot in a church again. Because to give tacit approval to that belief system in any way is tantamount to rubbing shoulders with the butchers of my people. – by Tim Gavin (The Irish Atheist)