Holy Cross - Children on the front line

Ten years ago this week, schoolgirls and their families making their way to and from the Holy Cross school in north Belfast came under attack on a daily basis.

The families ran a gauntlet of verbal abuse and attacks by loyalist “protestors”, separated by a line of RUC police who formed what became known as the “corridor of hate”.

The attacks, involving bottles, bricks and other missiles, continued on a daily basis for weeks, creating an international outcry.

The following extract from the book ‘Holy Cross: The Untold Story’ by Anne Cadwallader, recounts a notorious episode in recent Irish history.

The sequence of events was as follows: the children and parents walked through the British army metal blockade; the metal ‘wings’ closed and they were now out of sight of those waiting behind; the slow hand-clapping began.

A fusillade of loyalist bricks and other missiles rained down from overhead. The policeman walking beside Lynda and Amanda Bowes reached out with his right hand.

“He grabbed me by the arm,” Lynda says, “and pulled me right in beside him. He pulled his shield up over our heads and the bricks bounced off it. He was crouching me down, shouting - and then the protesters started to clap again, very slowly.”

Other police officers moved in to push the brick-throwers down a side street. A few seconds later, the bomb was thrown from the cover of the protesters towards the parents and children, falling amongst the lines of police.

Liz Murphy first knew of the bomb when it exploded. “It was as if your insides had shattered. I ran for all I was worth. My heart was beating wildly. Niamh was crying and shouting. Everybody was running about screaming. It was like a horror movie.”

Elaine Burns says, “I can remember Father Gary (Donegan of Holy Cross Church) grabbing my arm and saying ‘Run to the gates of the school’. It was chaos.”

Sean Carmichael says, “I felt Emma’s hand gripping mine very tightly. The next minute there was a large bang, not far from us. A police dog was hit and bolted in front of us and I nearly fell over it.

“A memory that will always stick with me was when I turned round and saw a fella I went to school with, Chris McDonald, and his wife. They were in the middle of the road, frozen to the spot with fear, and had their arms wrapped around their child. People were shouting at them to get down.

“We knew how bad the loyalists were, we had lived with them for generations, but never would I have thought they would stoop so low as to throw a pipe bomb at children.”

Martin Monaghan says, “Everyone started to panic, parents and children were running all over the place, some were lying on the ground covering their children and the children were screaming. Other parents tried to run back down the road to safety. There were parents and kids stuck in the middle, not knowing where to go. The RUC just scattered.”

Lisa Irvine describes how the police told her to get down. “You were afraid to look behind you in case there were people lying dead. I grabbed my child and ran like hell.”

Roisin Kennedy was with a Channel 4 cameraman when the bombers struck. “He had asked if he could walk with me and I said it was no problem. For some reason it was unusually quiet. It was dead eerie.

“Then, all of a sudden, the Channel 4 man shouted ‘Duck!’ He had seen stones flying over. Niamh and I hit the ground. The next thing was the bang. Even now I can still hear that bang. I froze on the spot but the cameraman grabbed my arm. I wrapped my arms around Niamh’s neck and ran.

“If that guy hadn’t grabbed my arm when he did, I think I would have collapsed. He was still holding his camera and running backwards, pulling me by the arm and shouting ‘Just keep running’.”

The three of them made it to the school grounds. Roisin says the cameraman still keeps in contact.

Tina Gallagher claims she saw a unionist representative smiling in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and, beside herself with rage, threw herself at a police vehicle to try and get at him.

“I wanted to kill him. He just stood and smirked at us. The unmerciful screams of the kids were truly horrific. My eldest daughter, Roisin, felt the rush of air coming from the explosion and was almost knocked off her feet.”

September 5 was David and Maura Lindsay’s daughter’s 10th birthday. Maura says, “We were all gathered like a load of cattle at the top of Alliance Avenue, standing waiting to get through. All of a sudden there was a real slow and steady clap. Then bricks came flying towards us and we ducked down and put our hands over the kids’ heads.

“Father (Aidan) Troy was just in front of us, telling people to protect themselves. Then the bomb went off. David scooped Amy up in his arms and ran. Women were screaming, children were screaming, cops were screaming.

“I turned to see if there was anyone I could help and a big policeman ran into me and screamed into my face, ‘F****** run, and keep moving’.

“When we got to the school the teachers were crying and hugging everybody. I was vomiting, violently sick. Anne Tanney came running down, very upset. The sight of women and kids coming up that hill was something I will never forget. Even the men were crying because of the state of their kids.

“There were kids who were absolutely screaming and their parents were using all their strength to try to calm them down. Everybody was hugging each other. We thought they could stoop no lower until that day.”

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