07 May 2006

Innocents killed as riots swept across city


(Marie Louise McCrory, Irish News)

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usBelfast was convulsed by rioting after the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands in May 1981. Two of those innocents who lost their lives in horrific circumstances during the violence were a milkman and his young son. Marie Louise McCrory reports

(Image from Irish Hunger Strike 1981 - click photo to go to site)

Roberta Guiney can't help but think about how differently her life could have turned out.

A mother-of-four, her thoughts turn constantly to her children and, in particular, her youngest son, Desmond, and his dreams of becoming a jockey.

She smiles when she thinks about the schoolboy's great love for horses and how his masterful way with them should have destined him for great things.

But, as always, Roberta's thoughts are tinged with a heavy sadness that he will never get that chance.

She lost her youngest child when he was just 14 in the same tragedy that claimed the life of her husband of 20 years, Eric.

The father and son were just two of those killed in widespread rioting which erupted in 1981 following the death on May 5 of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

On the 25th anniversary of the hunger strikes, Roberta (64) recalls the day that changed her life.

Rioting on the New Lodge Road in north Belfast left her a widow and saw her bury her child and her husband within days of each other.

Roberta, who now lives in Jordanstown, north of the city, said she does not blame those who threw the stones that day.

She recalls how she and Eric, a milkman, and their four children Alan, Alison, Julie and Desmond, had enjoyed the bank holiday in Carrickfergus the day before the tragedy.

"Life was great," Roberta, now a great-grandmother, says.

"We went out every Sunday for our dinner, because the way Eric worked it was his only day off.

"On the bank holiday we went out for our meal. Went to Carrickfergus and different places. We had a very good day and when we got back Alison and Desmond went out with the horse."

In the days following the death of Bobby Sands in the Maze Prison, widespread trouble raged in nationalist areas.

In north Belfast Eric Guiney got up as normal on May 7 to leave for work at around 5.45am. His job saw him deliver milk to both Protestant and Catholic homes.

Desmond went with his father as he was off school.

"He always liked to go and help his father," Roberta says.

"Their round took them around the Shankill and when they got to the New Lodge Road there were a lot of rioters there.

"They started throwing stones at them.

"Eric had the window down – he always drove with the window down. The stones came through the window and hit him on the head.

"The lorry crashed into a lamppost. Desmond went through the front window.

"I think the fire brigade and ambulance arrived but they started to stone them as well."

Eric and Desmond were taken to the Mater Hospital.

Roberta remembers being told about what happened by police who called at her home on the Old Irish Highway in Rathcoole at around 6.30am.

When she arrived at the hospital her husband and son were in intensive care, both having suffered severe head injuries.

Desmond had lost part of the top of his head.

"They had pillows all around Desmond's head. He hadn't a mark on his body," Roberta says.

"Both of them had brain damage. Eric's head was all bandaged. He didn't look like him."

Eric was later moved to the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Roberta, who worked in a tobacco factory in Carrickfergus, found herself visiting her husband during the day and staying overnight with her son.

Desmond Guiney later died with his mother by his side.

His funeral was attended by thousands of people, including school friends.

The cortege was led by four horses to Carnmoney Cemetery but Roberta remembers little of the day after walking down the driveway of her home.

She woke up in Whiteabbey Hospital after having passed out and was later discharged.

But as Roberta tried to begin to come to terms with the death of her son she was faced with further tragedy: the following day her husband died.

Eric never regained consciousness after the crash and had not been aware of his son's death.

However, his family had been playing a tape of their voices beside his bed and Roberta believes that her husband, whom she married when she was 19, was aware of their presence.

She had said her goodbye to him a few days earlier.

"I went into the hospital and started to ask Eric did he accept the Lord – to show me, even by moving a little finger," she says.

"They had paralysed his body as they did not want him to move because of his brain injury.

"He started to cry so that showed me he had."

Roberta buried her husband in the same plot as their son just days later.

Looking back to May 1981, Roberta said she believes she lived through a nightmare.

"I got through it by the Lord," she said.

"I just kept going. I didn't sleep for two years.

"I had awful headaches. I had a brain scan. It said there was too much pressure on the brain."

Now, 25 years on, she still thinks about Eric and Desmond every day.

She believes her husband would have enjoyed becoming a great-grandfather.

"Eric was a fantastic man," she says.

"He had a great sense of humour. He would have stopped to help an old person across the road. He would have done work for people."

She also thinks about Desmond and his dreams of becoming a jockey.

"He was so loving," she says.

"So affectionate."

May 7, 2006

This article appeared first in the May 5, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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