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Decades After Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” Families of the Dead are Still Seeking Answers

Janet Donnelly’s unarmed father was shot point-blank by a British solider. She spent 20 years unraveling the Army's cover-up.


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The first bullet pierced Joseph Murphy’s leg and exited the other side as he was running across the grass, away from the gunfire. On the aerial map of a field in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which hangs in her office, Janet Donnelly, Murphy’s daughter, can pinpoint the exact location where it happened in August 1971: A red pin, marking the spot where he was shot, then cried out to his friend, “Dessie, I’m hit!” and fell. Dessie’s location is marked nearby, a green pin. Green is for survivors.

The second bullet entered Murphy’s open wound as he was lying in the army barracks, where the British soldiers brought him, along with the rest of the injured. One soldier stood over him and cocked a gun at his bleeding leg. He fired. This time, the bullet lodged.

Donnelly can point to the barracks, or any other place on the map, and recount what happened there as if she was an eyewitness.

The death of Murphy and ten other civilians during August 9-11, 1971, would become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. It was one atrocity of many that would take place during Northern Ireland’s conflict, The Troubles, a war fuelled by hostility between the country’s Protestant and Catholic factions. By ’71, it had only been raging for over two years, with another 28 to go – and thousands of lives to be lost along the way.


But while lying in the hospital, Murphy told his wife a different story: Rioting had indeed broken out in the area, and he’d gone out looking for their teenage sons. The Army had suddenly begun firing at civilians, all of them unarmed. He was hit in the leg. The soldiers brought him back to the barracks where they beat him and the rest of the injured. One fired a fresh round into his open leg wound.

He died nearly two weeks later from a burst artery.

“One news report said, ‘The hardcore of the IRA has been wiped out tonight,’” remembers Donnelly.

“It was a bigger injustice than being shot – to have their names ruined,” she explains, her voice rising to a cry. “Them people were called IRA gunmen when they weren’t. I know the truth but when I’m dead and gone, my grandchildren are going to read the stories and think their great-grandfather was a gunman, and he wasn’t.”

For nearly twenty years, Donnelly has been trying to prove her father’s account. She started, along with family members of the other dead, by tracking down witnesses and taking statements.

In the years that followed the end of the Troubles, many people like Donnelly became amateur cold-case sleuths, trying to get the truth about their loved ones’ deaths. Many felt let down by the professional detectives tasked with doing so, like the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). Set up in 2005, the HET’s job is to investigate the more-than three thousand unsolved murders linked to the Troubles. As always, the catch was in the small print: When a family receives the HET’s report on their loved one’s murder, the opening lines state that they have “reviewed” the original police investigation to see if there were any opportunities for follow-up. Almost always, there were not. Nearly twenty years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a key milestone in Northern Ireland’s peace process, many of those left behind by the dead feel largely forgotten.


One Wednesday morning in February 2017, some of these family members gathered in a building situated opposite a graveyard near Belfast City Center. Seated alongside ex-prisoners curious about the conflict they’d been caught up in as younger men, they were there to try to find answers, with the help of the clean-shaven, bald-headed man sitting at the head of the table, who had already been through the process himself.

Just over 45 years before this meeting, Ciarán MacAirt’s grandmother had been killed in one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, the McGurk’s Bar Massacre. McGurk’s had stood just blocks away from where this meeting was now taking place before it was blown up. Fifteen people were killed in the explosion and seventeen more injured, including MacAirt’s grandfather. The bomb had been planted by paramilitaries loyal to the British, but in the days, weeks, and years that followed, the British Army would insist it had been an IRA “own goal.” The IRA, they insisted, had been assembling the bomb on the premises when it went off. The implication was clear: The pub was an IRA haunt, frequented by members or sympathizers. Nobody cared enough about alleged terrorists to demand answers when they were murdered. So when the Army was faced with awkward questions about civilian deaths, they would spin the line that the victims were not so innocent.

MacAirt and Donnelly are a generation apart – he the grandson of a victim, she the daughter of one – yet they were bonded by the same gnawing sense of injustice. They championed each other’s work, lending private and public support.

MacAirt’s investigation, trawling through ancient public records, unearthed forensic reports that revealed the truth about what happened at McGurk’s, leading to an official investigation by the Police Ombudsman. Now, through his charity, Paper Trail, which he founded in 2014, he hopes to impart his research skills and knowledge to others.

“Do you wanna go round the table and introduce yourselves?” he asked.

The five people did so. Today, they would learn about public records laws and archives, and how to mine them for information.


Back on the other side of the city, Donnelly sat in the makeshift investigative unit she’d created specifically for the purpose of investigating her father’s murder. Despite recently landing a huge break in the case, she has never been satisfied, and between her duties managing accounts for a community trust, she’d nip back to her office and pour over old files, searching for an angle she may have missed. She’s been searching for around twenty years, yet the work is never done and won’t be until there is an official independent investigation into her father’s murder.

“One witness told us the soldiers had broken into the local butcher’s shop and taken knives,” Donnelly says, rifling through a filing cabinet as she talks, looking for a document. Every time she imparts a new piece of information, she reaches for her files – for a soldier’s statement, a report – and searches for the exact line that proves she’s telling the truth. It’s as if she’s afraid of not being believed, and so she speaks in a clipped, encyclopedic tone, only referring to the facts she can prove – like a cop, investigating the murder of someone she’s never met.

She’d thought the witness must have imagined the break-in. There’d certainly been rumors about it, but she’d dismissed them after speaking to one of the shop’s employees. He hadn’t been working there that day, and had assumed that if there’d been a break-in, he’d have heard about it. Then the HET uncovered a statement from a soldier saying they had indeed broken into the shop to take shelter.

“My daddy had sutured wounds – like long, deep cuts – on his body,” she says. “We don’t know where they came from. He was the only victim not to have photographs taken during his post-mortem.” She doesn’t say that the soldiers cut him with stolen knives, because she can’t prove it happened – but the possibilities of what might have hang in the air.

She managed to track down everything from soldiers’ statements to the Army’s official investigation into Ballymurphy – “It’s half a page long” – to inquest papers. “The only thing I couldn’t find was my daddy’s medical reports [from when he was brought into the hospital],” she says. “We were told they’d all been destroyed.”

Through paperwork retrieved from the coroner’s office, she established that no guns, spent cartridges, or bullets had been retrieved from the scene. Gunpowder residue had not been found on any of the victims. She’d discovered one victim was a serving soldier himself, married to a local woman. He’d been visiting the area when he was injured. Another was a British Army veteran.


Joseph Murphy’s father, Donnelly’s grandfather, had been a British Army veteran himself, having served in WWI and WWII. Even after Joseph’s murder, Donnelly’s mother insisted on helping soldiers wounded in the local area. She’d told her children that as their father and the rest of the injured dying lay in the barracks, one young soldier had fought with his colleagues, insisting they summon a doctor and a padre (a Catholic chaplain). He was hit with the butt of a rifle. Donnelly searched for him, without luck, wanting to thank him for what he’d done and what he’d tried to do for her father. The HET indicated to her they’d found him; when they’d spoken to him, they said, he’d broken down. For security reasons, they couldn’t disclose his identity.

While a lot of survivors didn’t find the HET helpful, Donnelly did. They weren’t able to provide everything she asked her, but they did give her what they had, includng two depositions from her father’s doctors. In one, Dr. Alan Gurd, who at the time was a consultant surgeon in the Royal Victoria Hospital, detailed his examination of Murphy. Two lines caught her eye: “On examination, there was an entry wound on the upper aspect of the right thigh and an exit wound on the medical aspect … The bullet lying in the symphysis pubis was not removed.”

There it was. The smoking gun, or rather, the smoking bullet.


Inspired by Donnelly and MacAirt, other victims are now using the paper trails of the British’s government’s records to piece together what happened to their loved ones. From intelligence reports by Army officials to correspondence between civil servants, they’ve found puzzle pieces that had previously been missing.

“The people who attend our workshops are from every walk of life,” said MacAirt. “They are ordinary families whose loved ones were snatched from them. They are former combatants from paramilitary groups and state forces who are seeking to learn more about the context of the conflict that enveloped their lives. They are academics and researchers with a passion for our shared history. All have a story to tell. We offer them the means to tell their own story in their own words and supported by historical evidence.”

For some, the process didn’t just provide justice – but healing.

“The Paper Trail workshop was the first time I opened up about my father’s death,” said Stan Carberry. “We sit round a table [at the workshop] and somebody’s father could have been in the UVF [a Loyalist paramilitary group], somebody else’s in the IRA, whatever – but we all understand each other’s grief.” Carberry’s father, Stan Carberry Sr., an IRA volunteer, was shot dead when Stan was eight. He’d been driving a stolen car when the Army fired at the vehicle and missed. According to witnesses, Carberry got out of the car with his hands held out, but was shot and killed anyway. The Army disputed this, claiming he was firing a weapon while he drove the car, although a gun was never recovered from the car, says the younger Carberry. After years of asking questions on his own, Paper Trail helped Carberry discover that the gun used to kill his father was one frequently converted for use by Army snipers. In 2017, he attended a court hearing at which the Ministry of Defense revealed what information they held on the murder. “Every victim is different – some want prosecutions – but I don’t,” he says. “I don’t care about the soldier who did it. I just want to know what happened to my father. I’ve never had a Christmas I enjoyed since my last one with him.”


The day they exhume Murphy’s body is steel grey. Donnelly is standing in the graveyard, watching from afar: a tent erected around the gravesite, to give the body privacy. It’s taken two years of legal battles to get to this point; eventually, the coroner granted the family’s request to have the body lifted and examined. It was evidence, they’d argued.

Within half an hour, she receives the call. They found it: a military-issue bullet, which, unbeknownst to Donnelly, had been sitting in her father’s coffin for 45 years, embedded in his leg. Joseph Murphy was telling the truth, and his daughter can finally prove it.

The bullet boosts the family’s call for an independent investigation into what happened in Ballymurphy in August of 1971. It’s a breakthrough, but there is still a long road ahead. And time is running out to hold any of the British soldiers to account; the youngest are now in their sixties at least. Yet there’s some hope. A three-month inquest into the shootings was set for September 2018.

For survivors like MacAirt and Donnelly, the fight for truth and justice is a war in itself. “Most victims who dared to hope that the likes of the Historical Enquiries Team or Police Service of Northern Ireland would offer fair investigation and truth recovery, were gravely disappointed,” MacAirt says. “Many have since died. So, it has been up to family members themselves, the great work of NGOs and battling lawyers to fight for the truth.”

Lyra McKee is a freelance journalist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She's had bylines in The Atlantic, Mosaic Science, and BuzzFeed News. In 2016, Forbes Magazine named her one of their 30 under 30 in media in Europe. She writes mostly longform pieces about conflict, cold cases, crime, and health. She is also an editor of Mediagazer.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published May 31, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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