**I posted this story from NEWS HOUND last year after it appeared in remembrance of the 5th anniversary of the Omagh bomb. The information and photo of Oran are from CAIN.


Sharon O’Neill
(Irish News)

Oran Doherty (8), from Buncrana, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland. Oran was one of three boys from Buncrana to die in the explosion. His family said that he had been looking forward to going to Omagh all week.

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Five years after the Omagh bomb claimed the lives of 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins, Irish News Chief Reporter Sharon O’Neill spoke to Bernie Doherty whose eight-year-old son, Oran, was one of three children from Buncrana killed in the blast.

Buncrana – a small town on the banks of Lough Swilly in Co Donegal – is a haven for thousands of northerners escaping the normally turbulent summer months across the border. But as visitors enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, some of its residents will be rallying around families devastated by the indiscriminate hand of paramilitarism.

Buncrana, tucked away on the eastern shores of Inishowen and with a population of just 5,000, has suffered unimaginable pain inflicted by both loyalists and dissident republicans.

Sinn Féin councillor Eddie Fullerton was shot dead by the UFF in 1991 and ever since nationalist residents had feared their return.

But 12 years later the emergence of a dissident republican group, the Real IRA, cast another shadow over the town that has yet to lift following the murder of three children in the Omagh bombing.

Oran Doherty (eight), Sean McLaughlin (11) and 12-year-old James Barker were on a trip to the Co Tyrone town on Saturday August 15 1998, with a group of Spanish students when they were caught up in the horror that snatched away their young lives.

Spaniards Rocia Abad Ramos, a 23-year-old group leader and Fernando Blasco Baselga (12) were also murdered in the bombing that killed a total of 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, leaving hundreds injured – many permanently scarred for life.

Their deaths will be remembered in a small but poignant candle-light vigil in Knockalla Drive – where Oran and Sean lived just doors from each other.

Bernie and Michael Doherty still have a bag of sweets their son Oran left on the bus that took him to Omagh that day.

Five years on, Bernie recalls with distinct clarity the excitement of the eight-year-old as he was about to embark on a journey which unknown to everyone would end in carnage.

“Oran was hard to get up in the morning and the night before the trip he said ‘you better shake me hard in the morning’,” says Bernie, a mother-of-seven.

“When I woke him up I thought, for a split second,‘will I just let him lie?’ because I wasn’t happy about him going.

“He was only eight and had never been away before. It was his first time to go on a trip with students.

“But I thought no, it wouldn’t be fair not to let him go. When I called him he was up like a flash.

“He had a bath and I helped him to get dressed. His cousin Emmett called up to make sure he was still going. We only had punts and I had to get sterling. He was all excited when he saw the new £2 coin and kept looking at it.

“When Sean (McLaughlin) called they were sorting out the money for the bus and how much they had to spend.

“I remember him saying ‘ach, can I keep this (£2 coin)’. It was the last thing he said to me and I told him to watch himself.

“They were going to the Ulster American Folk Park. Spanish students would have a trip every Saturday and local children could go if they wanted to.

“They left here with one of the Spanish students my sister was keeping at the time. It was five boys and five girls from the town. When they got off the bus they separated from the girls. The five boys were caught up right in the middle of it.”

The 45-year-old full-time mother was unaware of the frightening events unfolding across the border until relatives of others boys on the trip came running to her door.

“Caoimhe (her daughter) was only eight months and sitting in her pram. I was standing in the front room looking out the window.

“They came running into the house and I just knew something was wrong.

“They said they were looking through text for football results and read the news that a bomb had gone off in the centre of Omagh.

“I lifted Caoimhe out of the pram and ran over to a neighbour’s, waiting for a call back from gardai.”

It was an agonising wait as conflicting news emerged about the boys.

“I kept thinking maybe they were still in the folk park, but then found out they were in Omagh,” says Bernie.

“I hoped the police would have them in a safe place. I kept thinking ‘I wonder what Oran is thinking. Is he frightened?’. Everybody gathered in Knockalla and my sisters who lived nearby came up.

“Some time later we were told some of the children were caught up in the bomb.

“Then we heard they left Omagh, they were on the bus and had got caught up in traffic but I still couldn’t content myself.

“At around 6pm my sister got a phone call to say Emmett (Oran’s cousin) had been taken to Enniskillen Hospital and had shrapnel removed from his bowel.

“There was still no news about Oran.

“Patricia Mc-Laughlin (Sean’s mother) kept saying ‘Oran will be all right, he is with Sean’. We just kept on hoping.

“Then we heard the bus was coming back, so my brother drove me up to meet the bus. There was no-one on it.

“My brother asked the driver if he knew where Oran and Sean were. He said ‘no. there are only Spanish students coming in on the other bus’.”

Several hours passed and the uncertainty was replaced by dread as more definite news started to filter through.

“There was still no word of them at 9pm, we were frantic,” says Bernie.

“My husband (Mickey) and Sean McLaughlin’s daddy and a lot of local people went to Omagh. We waited by the phone and gave descriptions to the RUC but still no word.

“Then at around 10pm a garda in the town rang and said ‘is your husband there?’ I said ‘no, he is in Omagh’. She said ‘I have to come back and talk to you, on your own’.

“I was expecting her to tell me my son was dead. She came back with a doctor from the town and told me three boys were missing, one was Oran. I let out an almighty scream.

“It was a long wait overnight. As the night went on, Mickey phoned and said he was at the leisure centre but there was still no word.

“He said: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll find the wee man and bring him home.’ I replied ‘please do’. I couldn’t sleep, the house was packed as we waited for word.”

By early morning the whole of Buncrana was immersed in grief for the loss of three young boys.

“At around 7am, I could see from my sister’s window that Patricia McLaughlin had some word through – there were people hugging each other outside.

“My sister’s phone rang, it was Mickey (her husband), He said ‘did you hear the news?’, I said ‘Ah, wee Sean is dead’, he then said: ‘Our Oran is dead too’.

“I just threw the phone to the ground.

“It is now all a blur to me. That night my brother and one of my sister’s took me up to the makeshift morgue to see Oran.

“It was late before we got to see him. It was so horrible. It was a cold place.

“His hair seemed to be all wet. There was a big bruise on his cheek and he had a lot of burns on his wee fingers and a deep cut on his forehead.

“His bottom lip was pushed out. I kept thinking he must have been crying when he died. I only found out at the inquest, two years later, that his lip was cut and had swollen.

“I looked at the body for a while and then returned home. It haunts me to this day that I left him there.

“When I feel low, I think I shouldn’t have left him.

“I still have the sweets he bought in the folk park. They were found on the bus with his wee bag. He was so innocent, he was hoping to come home and tell us all about his day.

“We still have his sweets, but not him.

“There was no need for this.”

Ex-Celtic star Mark Rieper helped carry Oran’s coffin and the young football fan was buried alongside his friends, Sean and James, whose body was later moved when his parents moved back to England.

“If we only had one child it would have been more difficult – they (the children) depended on me,” says Bernie.

“My family helped me, I have seven sisters. They were great.

“An unbelievable amount of people, Catholic and Protestant, came to visit and attended the wake.

“People have asked how did I cope but if there hadn’t been many people about I think It would have been far worse.”

Wall space in Bernie and Michael’s living room is at a premium with Oran’s smile lighting up the darkest of corners.

“Oran was full of fun – a real character. He loved his football and fishing with his daddy,” says Bernie.

“He wanted to either work in a sweet shop or play for Glasgow Celtic when he grew up.”

Oran is a regular topic of conversation after dinner with his death affecting the large family in many ways – but some emotions are too deep and too painful to expose.

“Not a day goes by when we don’t think about him. The girls talk about him but Gearoid (who was 12 when Oran died) doesn’t unless you bring it up,” says Bernie

“When something like this happens it is really the parents people think of, the children can sometimes be forgotten.

“I am very worried about Oisin. He was three-and-half at the time. He was there that day with me, he wouldn’t leave my side from the minute we heard the boys were missing.

“I didn’t want him to see Oran in the coffin because of what I thought it might do to him.

“I remember a few weeks later when we were going to see President Clinton in the leisure centre, I had the television on that morning and Eamon Holmes was interviewing someone at the bomb site, Oisin looked at me and said ‘mummy is that heaven’.

“I couldn’t tell him what happened. Later, someone told me to tell him as much of the truth as possible and I sat down with him and told him there had been a bombing and said God took Oran and Sean to heaven.

“I couldn’t tell him about Oran’s injuries, I was afraid of it affecting him. He wonders who did it and why would they do such a thing. It is so hard to explain.”

The youngest two in the family Caoimhe, who is five-and-a-half and Cillian, who is three-and-a-half, did not know Oran but are nevertheless inquisitive about their brother.

“Cillian knows Oran from his pictures. Caoimhe wouldn’t have remembered Oran, but she would talk about him and say: ‘Where did Oran go? Why is he dead, why won’t he come back’,” says Bernie.

“They talk away about him and laugh about the things he used to do. They have coped well.”

Cillian was born 12 months after Oran’s murder, but new life did not immediately bring fresh hope.

“The pregnancy wasn’t planned,” says Bernie.

“Cillian was great, he was a healthy baby but it didn’t help ease the pain over Oran.

“In fact, it was really sad at the time. I found it very hard, I wanted Oran to see him.”

It’s been a tough five years, but Bernie is slowly beginning to feel more upbeat.

“I now go out and enjoy myself like I used to. But there are times when you feel as sad as you were that day.

“Sometimes I just go to bed and cry my eyes out for Oran. Two daughters have got married since Oran died and there was a sadness on those days.

“It feels so long since I last saw Oran or spoke to him, but other times it seems like only yesterday.

“When I’m out walking I feel I have to walk to the graveyard or I feel guilty. For the first few weeks after Oran died I couldn’t go to the graveyard. I kept thinking Oran was with me anyway, I don’t have to remember him by going to the graveyard.

“Then one day I felt I had to go. I remember walking to the graveyard thinking ‘imagine, this is where I’m going to see my son’.

“I will always remember Oran, it doesn’t have to be in a graveyard. I wouldn’t say I will ever get over it but I will go on, I know I will.

“At the time, when it happened, I thought I would never do anything ever again. Anytime I saw a friend of Oran’s it was so hard but I have coped well.

“There is a big hole in my life. Rita Restorick whose son Stephen (a British soldier) was killed by the IRA wrote to me and said ‘the emptiness you feel now will be filled with memories as time goes on’ and I am now beginning to do that.

“Mickey found it harder. He would talk away about Oran but finds it very hard talking about the bombing itself.

“But we probably are a bit stronger, especially myself. I remember hearing my father saying at the wake to people ‘our Bernie is very weak, I don’t know how she is going to cope’.

“People in Buncrana, even to this day, say to me that they still think about it (Omagh). It was a big shock for the town.”

Although the Omagh families have the tragic events of that day in common, for Bernie other mothers whose children died in other circumstances, have been her source for healing.

“We are friendly but we don’t meet or discuss anything. Myself and Patricia (McLaugh-lin) cope in different ways.

“I meet up with a group of local women once a month who have lost children through sickness or accidents.

“We remember our children and light a candle for them. I find that a great help because none of us (the Omagh families) really got together.

“These other mothers share the same feelings even though our children died in different circumstances.

“It made me realise there are other people too, it is not just us that has lost a child, there are so many parents out there who have also suffered.”

Like many relatives Bernie is angry about the now well documented flawed original RUC investigation into the bombing.

While a number of those suspected of being behind the Real IRA attack are behind bars on unrelated offences, Bernie is adamant that only charges for murder will satisfy her quest for justice.

“They (police) know who they (killers) are. Police in Omagh that day were very good but I believe there has been a cover-up by those higher up. I still have questions,” she says.

“I can’t see them charging anyone with murder now. The punishment should fit the crime. These people should be convicted for murder.”

About the civil action by some families against those allegedly involved the bombing, she says: “It is a pity it had to be like that because so many people are running people down over the civil action because they don’t agree with it.”

The mother is scathing in her criticism of Sinn Féin.

“I think Sinn Féin could have helped to do more to bring these people to justice for they know who they are. Just because they don’t want to help the RUC/police,” she says.

“They seek justice for victims of loyalist and British killings, so why shouldn’t they want justice for ours?”

Asked for her thoughts about the Real IRA, she replies: “The two people who walked away from a car, left it in a crowded street full of people and children, I want to know how could they have done it.

“How would they feel if this had of been someone belonging to them? I would like to say to them how can they go on, being involved in an organisation.

“Stop this now, it is not worth it. Do you want to see more innocent people die?

“If they had stopped after Omagh, maybe some day I would have been able to forgive. But they are still a group, still together and still planning to take lives.

“If they are really sorry for all those innocent lives, they should stop now. If the Provos are willing to have a ceasefire, why can’t they? I can’t forgive them – I should as a Catholic, but I can’t. Maybe some day...”

Bernie had hoped that the bomb would have been a watershed in paramilitary activity but fears more innocent lives will be taken by those bent on violence.

“People were saying at the time ‘at least if there are no more lives lost now’, but I thought ‘why should Oran have had to die?’ ” she says.

“I kept thinking, I don’t care what happens any more, but as time went on I had hoped it had stopped. But now I see something happening again.

“I certainly don’t want anyone else belonging to me or any other innocent caught up in something like that again, but the way it is going....I can see it happening again...

“I can see more lives being lost.”

Should all paramilitaries disband? “Yes, all sides. I have no time for any of them, no right-thinking person does.”

“My daughter Amanda works in Derry and I would hate to think that she could be caught up in a bomb or anybody else killed by paramilitaries again.”

The conflict shattered their lives but Bernie wants nothing but permanent peace.

“We listened to the news about what was happening and sympathised but it wasn’t until it hit our own doorstep that we knew the suffering some people went through.

“I would just love to see lasting peace, Protestant and Catholics living together.”

August 15, 2003
This article appeared first in the August 14, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

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