The sectarian killing of two young Catholic girls in a loyalist bomb in Belfast on Halloween has been remembered as one of the darkest days of the conflict.
Clare Hughes, who was aged four, and six-year-old Paula Stronge died in the bombing of Benny’s Bar in Belfast’s Sailortown area on October 31, 1972.
A gathering of the families and old friends from the area was held on Monday night at the location to remember the events of half a century ago. A short walk then took place to the plaque to remember the friends installed in 2002.
The pair were playing in the street for Halloween when the blast occurred. Twelve others were injured in the explosion, which resulted from a 45kg device in a car parked close to the Catholic-owned pub.
On Halloween night, Paula went to the Hughes home to see if Clare wanted to come out and see the bonfire. Clare’s sister organised a fancy-dress competition in which the children of the area were participating in.
As the children, including Clare’s 10-year-old brother, were playing around the bonfire, a maroon coloured Mini with three men in it pulled up at the side of Benny’s Bar. A few minutes later they left in a black car leaving a 100lb bomb in a beer keg in the Mini.
Around 8pm, the bomb exploded. Paula died almost immediately after sustaining serious head injuries from flying debris. Clare also received head injuries and died on the way to hospital. At least a dozen customers in the bar were buried under the rubble.
Paula’s father was attempting to dig out survivors when he was told his daughter was caught up in the blast. Paula had been hit by debris from the bomb and died almost instantly. Both Paula and Clare were rushed into a nearby house while residents waited for emergency services to arrive.
Despite the best efforts of locals and the fire crews who arrived on foot, the two little girls were fatally injured.
“Paula died at the scene,” recalled Brian Quinn, a former resident. “Clare passed away in hospital that night. Her mum, Bridie, had lifted her from the ground and cradled her in her arms after being there just seconds after the bomb had exploded.”
“Clare’s parents, Gerry and Bridie, have since passed away. Paula’s father, also Gerry, has also passed on, but her mother, Sally, is now 95 and is very appreciative of this tribute to Paula and Clare.”
Tony Stronge, who was 11 at the time, remembered how his sister was killed.
“My sister was dressed up as a little witch and the bonfire was just across from Mrs Hughes’ house, where she could keep an eye on us,” he recalled.
“All the kids from the area were there and we were running in and out of the houses because they all had parties on.
“Paula went out again and I didn’t go with her, so in a way I blame myself. I was in the house when the bomb went off.
“There was a massive explosion and the pictures fell off the walls. Our house was in the next street and the whole house shook.”
Tony remembered how, when his father saw Paula lying on the pavement, he knew she was dead.
“He was a hero, but he died of a broken heart a few years after the bombing.
“She was a flying, loving girl. She would do anything for you. You couldn’t help but smile when she was around. She was the joy of my mum’s life.”