From ashes of Omagh rises a vision of hope

In the fraught, terrible hours after the Omagh bombing, a temporary mortuary was set up in the Lisanelly army barracks just a few hundred yards from the centre of the blast.

The Army provided curtains, flowers and comfortable chairs for those waiting for the news they dreaded. The death toll was so high that some had to queue to identify their loved ones. Lisanelly was where some had their last glimpses of their loved ones, sometimes seeing sights which have never left them.

"She had a face full of shrapnel," a father said of his teenage daughter. Another parent would later say: "That's what I see every night, that makeshift mortuary."

Ten years on, Lisanelly is now empty – rendered redundant by the peace process – but there are plans for rebuilding it, this time as a beacon of hope for the future.

Far from being pushed apart by violence, the Protestant and Catholic Churches have launched an unprecedented effort to create a shared future for the children of the town.

More than 90 per cent of Northern Ireland's children are educated in segregated schools: that's the way it has always been. But the Churches now want to bring together half a dozen existing schools, Catholic and Protestant, secondary and primary, in new premises on the Lisanelly site.

Nothing as ambitious and far-reaching as this has ever been seen before in Northern Ireland. It is an unmistakable sign that the prevailing mood is anything but bitter, and that the town where 29 died has not allowed itself to be brutalised by the bombers.

So the dissident republicans who blew it up did not wreck community relations nor wreck the peace process as they had hoped. Instead, those involved in the process redoubled their efforts, eventually delivering today's peace.

Omagh and district has managed to maintain harmonious community relations instead of splitting into divisive factions and mutual recrimination. It is a unity of shared grief: the bomb killed Protestants and Catholics alike, so that the pain and the loss was collective.

As the Rev Robert Herron, the local Presbyterian minister, described it: "The response was very much a human response, not so much a sectarian one."

A Catholic parish priest, Monsignor Joe Donnelly, agreed: "Omagh was always distinctive in that there was very little rank sectarianism here, and it didn't allow itself to be divided. There is a good respect for each other's traditions, and an acceptance that we should work together on common projects."

In education, segregation has always been the order of the day. But Monsignor Donnelly and the Rev Herron jointly head a campaign to gather local schools together.

While the schools would remain separate entities, they would become part of an "educational village", sharing the land and its facilities. Pupils of different religions would mix socially and in many activities.

The Rev Herron said: "The words we're using is that the schools would co-operate, collaborate and be inter-dependent. This is a positive and creative vision." Monsignor Donnelly added: "There would be cross-community sharing between all the different schools. The beauty of it is that there is a surge of interest and a quiet excitement about the possibilities."

A senior Unionist has called it "a magnificent opportunity", while Sinn Fein described it as "an inspirational beacon to the world in respect of conflict transformation". Much will depend, however, on whether the Ministry of Defence is prepared to hand over the ground.

It seems almost beyond belief that Northern Ireland's most deeply wounded town should be actively working towards a common future, and thinking of co-existence rather than separation. Yet many talk of the town's strong sense of hope.

David Bolton, whose counselling service has helped more than 100 people cope with the effects of the bomb, said: "There's optimism around. Young people are positive and forward-looking."

The organisation the world knows best is the Omagh Support and Self Help Group, which represents some victims' families and which maintains a vocal public campaign. Its speciality is the use of legal action.

Unfortunately, the group has recently become involved in disagreements on exactly how to mark the 10th anniversary of the attack. This means that this year there will be two separate commemoration ceremonies.

But right from the start, immediately after the bomb, there were signs that the town would not let its hurt turn into acrimony.

At one of the funerals, a Catholic bishop told townspeople: "If it could become a model for the type of Northern Ireland we want to build, something good will have come of this." Remarkably, his words were applauded by the congregation.

Since then, sorrow has gone hand in hand with determined efforts by the community and by individuals to move on. A girl who lost a leg will shortly be married; another amputee has become a teacher.

Another teenager was so badly injured that she begged her father to help her die: today she is an occupational therapist and the mother of two sons.

A young woman who lost her eyesight works as a counsellor for the Royal National Institute for the Blind. "I've tried to make the most of my life," she explained. "Everybody has their way of coping, and my way of coping is to get on with it." Wesley Atchison, editor of the Tyrone Constitution newspaper, illustrates how the bomb's effects cannot be escaped. "There has rarely been a week when there hasn't been some development relating to the bomb. So it's very much an ongoing atrocity – it's not going to disappear in this generation. But above all we have amazingly resilient people."

One of the most resilient of them all is Mick Grimes, now 83, whose family suffered terribly in the bombing.

Mick and his wife, Mary, had 12 children together. Mary was 66 on the day she died: she went into Omagh with her daughter, Avril, and her little grand-daughter.

Avril's last words to Mick as they drove off from their farmyard were "We are away now, bye."

Mick has said little publicly over the past decade but has now produced a book, launched a few days ago in Omagh, of his prose and poems.

This quiet country poet who has had to endure so much grief has – in common with many in Omagh – succeeded in reaching what another Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, described as "the far side of revenge".

Like most of Omagh, he displays no bitterness. Instead, he focuses on the day when, in another world, the lost members of his family will be restored to him.

That is why he called his book Till We Meet Again, and why he writes in it:

"Though our hearts are still breaking, we must try to smile:

"They are waiting to greet us at the end of the mile."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us