Opinion

Bloody Sunday: Why we need the human stories that history textbooks leave out

Author and poet Julieann Campbell's book On Bloody Sunday features interviews with people who were there. She hopes it will address the misconceptions

Bloody Sunday in Derry. Father Edward Daly, front, waving a blood-soaked white handkerchief while trying to lead people to safety. Image: Image: Daily Mail/Shutterstock

One of the greatest privileges of my life has been meeting so many affected by Northern Ireland’s recent conflict and helping them to tell their stories – documenting them for history’s sake.

My book, On Bloody Sunday, is a culmination of this passion as well as an important reminder of just how many more stories are waiting to be heard. When approached by Octopus about a 50th anniversary book I knew I had to say yes. I’d spent over a decade collecting oral histories spanning the civil rights movement and the Troubles, and in particular, Bloody Sunday, and knew the immense value of such accounts.

As a Bloody Sunday relative myself and previous author on the subject, I also knew I could tell the story better than most. We grew up hearing stories of my uncle Jackie, a champion boxer and much-loved brother who was shot on Bloody Sunday aged just 17. Although told few details at the time, we knew that something very wrong had taken place. I later worked alongside other families and wounded during my time with the Bloody Sunday Trust and was horrified to learn the full extent of what happened in Derry and how the killings had been publicly branded an IRA battle, with those involved thereby terrorist families.

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That’s why this book needed to be bigger than just one family’s story. I knew instantly that to tell it properly depended on those who lived through January 30 1972. It was not my story to tell – it was theirs.

As one of the biggest cover-ups in British or Irish history, the truth about Bloody Sunday is well documented with a colossal archive of material – a researcher’s dream. I knew it would be difficult to write about and that it might well be the last time many of these people engaged in such a project, but it mattered. It really mattered. Indeed, several of the book’s speakers have passed away since the book came out, making their contribution and testimony even more precious.

I knew the case details so well, it felt good to be given the opportunity to unravel so many myths and address the mistruths of the past through eyewitness testimony, army communications and archives. On Bloody Sunday draws from various sources, including my own oral history work, other books and projects, and the vast archive of testimony and evidential material from the now-disgraced Widgery Tribunal (1972) and the Bloody Sunday Inquiry (2010). By bringing so many disparate sources together, its narrative unfolds with a rare and fascinating detail.

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In all, over 100 speakers contributed to the book, including new interviews I conducted. With such a sensitive issue, I was glad I had the previous experience necessary to tread carefully, particularly when approaching individuals and families for their support. Some I spoke to about the book mentioned other existing interviews and were reluctant to be reinterviewed, which is totally understandable when considering their loss and the passage of time. In these instances, I was pointed towards these outside sources so I could still include them where necessary. One contribution that meant a lot was having the chance to ask my mother’s perspective and include some of her memories in the book. She had never spoken out before and never will again.

Naturally, after over 50 years many relatives and eyewitnesses have since died, so I’m fortunate to be able to include some of these deceased voices from previous eyewitness accounts and inquiry statements. By utilising this archival material, I could include powerful memories from some of the wives and mothers of Bloody Sunday victims, and from some of the deceased wounded I never had a chance to meet, like John Johnston and Peggy Deery. I was very moved to be able to bring these forgotten voices to the fore again.

What inspires me most is the more poignant details so easily lost to history, like the baby boy born eight days after his father Gerard’s murder or the mother who put blankets on her son’s grave every winter. My uncle Jackie apparently giggling just before he was shot at the sight of the priest running alongside him, or a 50-year-old Mars Bar that Michael Kelly never got to eat.

At times during interviews, I’ve been overwhelmed by the things that people share but I feel privileged to be able to hear such personal memories and commit them to paper. These are the human details that history textbooks will leave out but that leave the biggest impression.

Hopefully, On Bloody Sunday will help address the many misconceptions about Bloody Sunday that continue to persist outside Derry and tell the human story behind hype and headlines.

More than anything, this work has taught me that everyone has a story, no matter the context. I’m continually surprised and fascinated by the people I meet, and I hope others are inspired to ask about and record their own family and community experiences too. History surrounds us all, but it’s up to us to ask and listen.

Julieann Campbell is an award-winning author and poet.

On Bloody Sunday by Julieann Campbell is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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