Echoes after the guns fall silent

Twenty-two years ago Jim Seymour, then an RUC constable, was shot in the head by the IRA. Last week he died. David McKittrick hopes that the suffering of his family, and that of so many others, serves as a reminder of why Northern Ireland must never reve
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The story of the Seymour family of Ballynakelly, Co Tyrone, is one which shows that while the violence has halted, for some victims the Troubles may never really come to an end.

For 22 years Jim Seymour lay in a hospital bed, a bullet in his head, apparently conscious but unable to move or speak. Every day for 22 years his wife, May, visited him. According to a relative: "Sometimes he would smile and sometimes he would cry and that was all the response she ever got from him."

Jim Seymour died last week at the age of 55, bringing the 22- year vigil to a close: the strain and anguish suffered by him and his family can only be imagined. As with so many families, the scars inflicted may never heal.

In 1973 Mr Seymour was an RUC constable, on guard duty at Coalisland RUC station a few miles from his home, when it was attacked by the IRA. A bullet came through an observation slit and hit Mr Seymour between the eye and the ear, lodging in his skull.

In a newspaper interview eight years ago Mrs Seymour described first seeing him after the shooting: "I'd never have known him. His head was swollen to twice the size. He was black to the waist with congealed blood.

"I could hardly see him for all the machines connected to him. I can't get that picture out of my mind. My heart is broken but I try not to think of them that shot my husband. What do they care about grief?"

Mr Seymour was a Devon man who served for 12 years in the Royal Navy before moving to Northern Ireland. From early on after the shooting, it was clear he would spend the rest of his life in hospital.

Relatives said they could not tell whether he really knew what had happened to him. His sister-in-law, Edith Simpson, said: "There was never any hope of Jim making a recovery. He could hear and he knew what was going on around him. He enjoyed television, but because of his condition, he simply couldn't communicate."

In the early days Mrs Seymour, having no car, each day walked two miles to catch a bus to the hospital. Afterwards she walked back home. Later she learnt to drive and made the journey by car. Generations of doctors and nurses cared for Mr Seymour during his two decades in South Tyrone hospital.

During that time his children, who were aged 12 and eight when he was shot, grew up, married, and had children of their own. After their weddings they drove to the hospital to have photographs taken with him. Ernie Simpson, Mr Seymour's brother-in-law, told a local paper: "When the children had their wedding photographs taken with Jim it was desperate to watch. He just managed a wee smile."

Regarding Mrs Seymour's daily visits, Mr Simpson said: "Her love for Jim only seemed to grow stronger when he became ill. You just could not put into words the affection she had for that man. It was her life's duty.

"In the same way other people get up in the morning to go to work, she got up to visit Jim. She looked forward to it. She'd hold his hand and talk away to him about family problems, marriages, deaths, all the news."

The end, when it came, contained a final cruel blow. Mrs Seymour had visited her husband as usual and returned home, not realising he was close to death. The news that he had died came unexpectedly and "devastated" her.

Although the Seymour family has suffered particularly severely from the Troubles, their protracted tragedy is only one of hundreds arising from a quarter of a century of death and destruction.

Among the wounded are many in wheelchairs or confined to bed, or who have suffered brain damage. Some are in constant pain. One senior policeman continued to serve in the force despite losing an arm, a leg and an eye in an explosion. Another officer has no arms. One IRA volunteer was emasculated in a premature blast.

The horror a bomb can cause was summed up in this report of an explosion at the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast in the Seventies: "One girl has lost both legs, an arm and an eye. Her sister has lost both legs. A male victim lost two legs, and a female lost one leg and one arm. Another female lost one limb and three of the injured have lost eyes."

Most of the killings were the work of terrorists, but one of the deepest sources of resentment and sense of injustice is to be found among some of the several hundred families that lost members at the hands of the security forces. The perception that soldiers carried out unjustified killings, and escaped prosecution for them, has been one of the well-springs of the Troubles.

Fate has treated so many people unkindly. At least two women have lost two life-partners, both killed by terrorists years apart. One woman survived a shooting but lost her unborn child, which was buried in a tiny light- blue coffin in unconsecrated ground next to a graveyard yards from her home.

Over and over again the "wrong" people died. A nine- year-old Londonderry boy, playing cowboys with his brother, upset a tripwire in his garden and set off a bomb, which killed him. A man burst into a house in Belfast, shot dead the occupant, then exclaimed: "Christ, I'm in the wrong house."

A man was issued with a personal protection weapon after receiving threats from loyalists: within a few hours it went off by accident and killed him. In another incident a dying man said to his wife: "The bastards, why did they shoot me? I'm not in anything."

A bullet fired by a soldier during a fight in a pub passed through the arm of a loyalist activist and killed a man having a quiet drink in a corner. A bullet fired by a republican passed through the arm of a policeman on traffic duty and killed a woman motorist.

The senselessness of many of the killings is increased by the character of some of the killers. A loyalist, jailed for four murders, had been drinking two bottles of gin a day, which resulted in brain damage. He gave himself up to police after twice trying to commit suicide.

One woman lost her son, shot dead by loyalists, and her husband, who collapsed and died when he heard the news. When a father of four was shot dead in Co Armagh his widow and her sister had to be carried into church for the funeral: both suffered from multiple sclerosis. A drunk man followed his wife to a police station, became involved in an altercation with a sentry, and was shot dead.

There are hundreds more stories of terrible deaths and terrible injuries, of shattered lives and shattered families, of widows and orphans whose suffering continues though the guns have fallen silent.

Perhaps Jim Seymour will be the last victim to die. His sister- in-law, Edith Simpson, said: "May told Jim about the ceasefires, but we'll never know if he understood or not. There's a great sadness and I suppose it is even more heartbreaking now that there is peace in the country."

The hope is that the suffering of the Seymours and other families should serve as a lasting reminder of why Northern Ireland should never again return to violent conflict, a lasting reminder that war is hell.

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