By Andrée Murphy
“The hardest thing I have ever had to do.”
“That’s it, we all did them justice.”
“Every one of us became children again.”
“It was like ten wakes, only without the bodies.”
Sitting for the past two weeks at the Ballymurphy Inquest you could not help but be moved every single day.
Yesterday was the last day of testimonies. Carmel Quinn, the sister of John Laverty, sat with her sister Rita for over half an hour in the witness box waiting for Justice Keegan, who was running late. Having just returned from a speaking tour of America bringing her story and story of the Ballymurphy Massacre to cities across the States, she did not show any visible signs of jet lag. Rita, who had been at all of the other families’ testimonies, waiting for her family’s turn, sat giving Carmel the support only a big sister can. The little wait meant that Tommy Quinn, Carmel’s husband could bring up a treasured family photograph to the witness stand. John with them as Carmel began.
The testimony must be read in full to give credit to how the quiet but assured words built to give a portrait of a family which had been happy, despite the loss of two children in early years. Echoing all of the previous testimonies the role of their mummy in the “warm”, “cozy” and safe home became so clear. A mummy utterly heartbroken after her son’s disappearance and killing and her other son’s torture and false imprisonment.
And their daddy, clearly loved, clearly a strong home maker completely dedicated to his family, who had borne so much, who died of a broken heart after the grandchild named after his lost son, was killed in a family holiday accident.
It was trauma, upon heartbreak, upon devastation. Carmel’s dignity, poise and explanation demonstrated however the strength inherited from her parents. The clear explanation of how truth and acknowledgement is vital for her, her siblings and Terry, the brother who was broken by the British army’s torture of his body and mind.
That, like the family of Joseph Corr, the Laverty’s do not know how John met his death, how he ended up in a morgue, having left his home a big healthy singing funny young man to end up dead, has tortured the family with unanswered questions. Like the families affected by disappearances, those questions haunt the family, especially as they know how Terry was treated. Terry survived to bear witness, John did not.
Anne Ferguson, the daughter of John McKerr also gave testimony yesterday. Testimony about the father of eight, who had served in the British army and was dedicated to his family and his church. How he had been killed while opening the chapel for the funeral of a little boy drowned in an accident that week. She spoke about the impact of losing their father on each of John McKerr’s eight children, summed up with missing “his influence, advice, his love and his presence”.
In particular Anne spoke of the impact of the lies and slurs put out by the British army to cover up her daddy’s killing. Something that she hopes this inquest will address and how this family needs the public record to be corrected.
Once again, the public gallery was filled with every other family, giving each other support, all hugging and kissing, all different families all becoming one family in that room as they were all affected by this horror.
On the fourth floor the families gathered, each taking their turn to say well done, to make each other tea, to hug and sit beside each other. Rita Bonar, John Laverty’s sister introduced her local priest Father Paddy, who said a little prayer in the family room that spilled onto the landing. It was a communion of heartbreak, strength, resolve and it was inspirational.
Below are the testimonies of Carmel Quinn on behalf of the Laverty Family, and Anne Ferguson on behalf of the McKerr family kindly shared by the Ballymurphy Massacre Committee:
My name is Carmel Quinn. I am here today, 47 years after the death of my brother John to tell you who he really was.
He is not just another statistic of the conflict; he was a son, a brother, an uncle. He was deeply loved.
The following memories are from his brothers and sisters and will give you an insight into a young man who had his whole life ahead of him and whose absence from our family is still real to us in our everyday lives today.
Our John was born on 3rd April 1951. He was called after his uncle John who fought in the second world war. He was the fifth child born to our parents Tommy and Mary. Six more children were to follow. Tragically, our parents lost two other children. My brother Martin’s twin-sister died at birth and Gerard was 18 months old when we lost him on 18th December 1960.
Our John was a kind, loving child who grew up to be a 6-foot-tall laid-back, easy going lad.
My parents kept a close family unit. Our mother told us, from a young age, that “a family who pray together stay together”.
I was the youngest in our family and my first real memory of our John is going with him and the rest of our family to the Clonard Novena. I was the baby, so John would carry me on his shoulders. I was about four at the time. My sister Mary remembers fondly how John and her would race each other home from school to see who could reach the house first to take me out.
All the boys shared a room. Martin remembers the pillow fights the four boys had. He laughs about how he and John were in a team against Tommy and Terry and of course, how they would always win!
My brother Tommy and John were close. Tommy remembers how John, Terry and him enjoyed their teenage years; fishing, playing football and climbing the mountains that lie behind Ballymurphy. Tommy recalls that John never caused our parents any bother. He was the type of person who would rather help somebody than hinder them. As siblings, this is something we would all agree on. When Tommy was getting married, he asked John to be his best man, but John was reluctant to agree because of his shyness. He couldn’t bear to think of standing up and giving a speech!
My brother Terry finds it too difficult to speak about our John. He finds it hard to think about the happy times as the loss overshadows these. Terry and John were also very close. Terry remembers sitting in our cosy house in Ballymurphy laughing together at TV programmes as our mummy made the dinner. When John was 15 years old, he kept pigeons. A funny memory was when John bought a homing pigeon off a man down the Falls Road. Terry and John let it off. They sat up all night at their bedroom window, but the pigeon didn’t return. The next day a rap came at the door. It was the man who had sold him the bird. Well, the pigeon was a true homing pigeon. It had gone home to down the Falls!
To the outside world, our John was a quiet big fella but in the comfort of our home he was a prankster! This is something Rita always laughs about. He was always playing tricks on us, Mummy and Daddy included! John and Terry would put labels on our Mummy’s back or hang pegs off her coat before she went out and John’s big hearty laugh could be heard from next door while Mummy was shouting at him. He fancied himself as a bit of a singer too. His voice could be heard all over the house, singing his favorite songs, although we didn’t fancy his singing as much as he did.
John always tried to look after us. He helped our sister Tilly who had two daughters at the time. He would mind them on a Friday night to make sure Tilly and her husband Edmund could get a night out. John didn’t drink so had no issue giving up his Friday nights. On a Saturday he would call to our brother Tommy’s house to see his niece. He would go to the bookies around the corner and do a few bets on the horses and come back and watch the horse racing on TV.
He worked for Belfast Corporation and every week, so long as he had enough money to do a few bets; the rest of his wages were handed to our Mummy to run the house.
The only time we heard our John complain was when he was 18. He rolled in pain and it turned out his appendix had burst. He had to have it removed and spent two weeks in hospital. It didn’t take him long to return to work again!
Christmas in our house was always special. Our John would buy a present every week in the run up to Christmas and try to hide them from his sisters, especially our Rita. Rita, still to this day, has the fountain pen he bought her the last Christmas he was here. My sister Sue still has a picture of the Sacred Heart he bought for her. Both presents are treasured and cherished.
I remember so clearly my 8th birthday on 3rd August 1971. My older brothers and sisters all worked so they would all chip in for me to have a birthday party like no other in the street! Being the baby of the family, I was spoilt. John and Terry were there helping my Mummy with the food. I remember her telling them they were supposed to be giving the sweets out to the kids, not eating them. I think that was the last time I heard our John laughing. John and Terry were always laughing.
My life completely changed forever six days later. Women and children were being evacuated from our area in Ballymurphy. Mummy refused to leave my Daddy and her sons. My sister, Sue, who was 24 years old at the time said she would go instead and take me and Rita for safety.
John helped us over to our local community centre, carrying our bags for us. I began to cry because I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my Mummy and my family. I remember having a real sense of fear. John told me that it would be alright. I was only going on a holiday and when we come home everything would be ok again. We got on the bus and left. Our John stood waving to us until we couldn’t see him anymore. Unknown to us, this would be the last time we would see our beautiful brother.
On 11th August 1971, our John was killed. He was shot in the back. Our family have the added grief that we do not know exactly what happened our brother. We do know our John was not a gunman. Our brother Terry was arrested the same morning and tortured by soldiers and RMP’s. One soldier said to him; ‘I have already shot one Irish bastard dead, another won’t matter’. Terry, at this stage did not know he was talking about our John. 54 people were arrested on the 11th august 1971 for riotous behaviour but only two were ever charged. One, was our Terry.
John and Terry were missing. My mummy and daddy tried to find out where they were. They went looking for them, but it would be 36 hours before they found out that John was dead, and Terry arrested.
On 12th of August a young man from Ballymurphy heard about people missing. He went to hospitals and to the morgue. It was there that he was told there were unidentified bodies. He was able to identify our John. He said he knew it was him as he had his work boots on.
This young fella had the task of telling our mummy. She was standing at the front gate when she was told. Her piercing squeal could be heard by neighbours. Our next-door neighbour heard her cry out and run out of her house. She told us years later that our mummy had to be held down on the chair as she was so distraught. Not long after, the doctor had to be phoned. Our neighbour remembers with pain, that piercing squeal. It has never left her.
Our John had been taken alongside Mr Corr to the Military Wing of Musgrave Park Hospital where he was pronounced dead. We were never provided with a time of death. We don’t know when Johns body was brought to the morgue, but it was here that our uncle Richard officially identified him.
Our Terry got bail and had to report every day to the police as part of his bail conditions. Even on the very day we were burying our brother he had to report to the station. We couldn’t even bury our brother in peace.
Our Johns body was released on Saturday 14th August and brought straight to the chapel. We didn’t get to see him or to have him home. We buried our John on the 16th August. Rita remembers hearing our daddy cry out in the chapel; ‘Ah God, my son’ and breaking down. We had never saw our daddy cry before.
No words could ever explain how losing our John the way we did impacted on all our lives. We lost our brother, but we also lost our Mummy and Daddy. Their grief was added to by the lies they had to read in the paper about their son. They functioned, but their hearts were too sore to find any joy in life again.
I was picked up from school every day by my Mummy and we would go to the graveyard to visit our John. She would sit talking to him and crying for him. At night she had no peace. I would hear her crying and asking God “why?” This became my new normal, from school to the graveyard then in the evening to mass. Looking back now, as a woman with a grown-up family, I don’t know how she coped.
Christmas 1971 was horrendous. The Christmases we had known were gone forever. Our Terry, who was arrested the morning John was killed, was imprisoned on 18th December 1971. This was also the anniversary of our brother Gerard’s premature death.
Terry was sentenced to six months in jail. He was charged with riotous behaviour. A charge he always disputed. In recent years Terry decided to challenge the conviction. A conviction that was part of the cover up of his treatment and the killing of our brother. Our Terry had his conviction overturned on 10th February 2015. This was such a bitter sweet moment. The inhumane torture Terry suffered at the hands of the soldiers and the RMP’s on the 11th August 1971 has never left him and has taken a toll on his health up to the present day.
Christmas of 1971 was not a Christmas in our house. Our mummy and daddy had two sons missing. We had two brothers missing. Terry’s imprisonment added to the grief and heartache of our family.
There was no Christmas tree. No preparation for Christmas. No childhood excitement. Our parents were trying to cope with so much. John’s loss was so much to bear for my older brothers and sisters, but they recognised the impact it had on our parents and they tried to hold it together for them. Martin recalls how he was the only one left in the boy’s room. Tommy was married, Terry in jail and John now taken from us. He remembers the silence. He was only 15 years old at the time, he remembers how he cried himself to sleep most nights.
Life went on but was never the same. We were happy and then, in the blink of an eye, it was all gone. Family life as we knew it changed. An emptiness came over our home.
In April 1974, my sister Mary and her husband had a beautiful baby boy. They called him John. And so, our wee John came into to our lives. My Daddy seemed to smile a bit more when wee John was around. My parents seemed to have found a bit of hope. He was so much like our big John. And, just like our big John, he was deeply loved by all our family.
On 21st July 1979 we were all on holiday in Donegal – all the family together for the first time in years. That was the day we lost our wee John. He was knocked down by a car and killed. He was 5 years old.
We buried our Daddy 18 months later. My Mummy said he had died of a broken heart. The loss of our big John and then his namesake was just too much for him to cope with.
John’s death affected each and every one of us in different ways. Not one of my brothers or sisters has ever been the same. Rita would talk about how her and Martin’s teenage years were robbed. How she became anxious and – throughout her life, if she was happy, she was afraid that something bad was going to happen to shatter that happiness. As the eldest sister, our Tilly carried a great burden throughout her life. We lost her suddenly on Christmas Eve, 2014.
I grew up, got married and had three children. Like my brothers and sisters, I have never recovered from losing my brother. My life is my children, but I was never able to embrace the full joy of being a mother. I was over anxious, over protective and always worrying. I have passed these traits on to my own children. Not many people talk about the impact on the next generation. I can tell you that each one of my children and all the children of my own brothers and sisters love their uncle as if they knew him. They could tell you all the stories about him and they miss him without ever having met him. When John died, he had 3 nieces. Today, he has 81 nieces, nephews and great nieces & nephews that he has missed out on knowing.
Our Johns life was cut short. He was only 20. Yet what I have said today is only a glimpse into our John’s life and our lives following his death.
My brother never had the chance to marry should he have wanted. To have children of his own. To travel, or to make a life for himself. As brothers and sisters, we bore witness to his kind heart, his gentleness and his caring nature. We remember him for the loving person he was. A young fella that had so much life in him to live. We truly wish we could hear his loud laugh, see the glint in his big brown eyes and most of all to hear him sing once more.
Personal Statement of Anne Ferguson daughter John McKerr.
Our Father was John James McKerr and our Mother was Maureen Philomena McKerr.
I am my parents’ oldest daughter Anne and I am making this statement on behalf of our family.
My parents had eight children. At the time of Daddy’s death, Brian was 26, John 24, I was 23, Agnes 21, Maureen 19, Margaret 17, Michael 15 and Bernadette 11.
Dad also had 4 grandchildren at the time he died. Brian my eldest brother had two children, Brian junior, aged 4 and Shaun aged 2. Brian’s family lived abroad.
My own children, Kieran aged 4 and Lorraine aged two, lived with my Mum and Dad while I worked in England.
That was the family.
We had all grown up together and were – and still are – a close family unit.
My brother Brian joined the Royal Navy at the aged of 18.
John moved to England at 18 to train as an accountant.
Agnes moved to work in England and I also moved there in May 1971 (after my marriage broke down).
Maureen, better known as Mo, Margaret, Michael and Bernadette all lived at home in Belfast with my parents as did my 2 children, Kieran and Lorraine.
Mo, who was living at home when my father was killed, says that when Daddy did not come home on the evening he was shot, the 11th August 1971, my mother assumed that he had been prevented from coming home from the Whiterock area because of the trouble in the area. Daddy had warned Mum that he might be late or might have to stay with the priest at the Church he was working on because there has been a lot of trouble over the past few days and a curfew was also in place, consequently my family were not unduly worried that evening.
At 8 am the following day Mo was waiting for a lift to work. There was no public transport running because of the trouble. She was reading the Irish News and read that “A Willie John McKerr had been shot and wounded in the Whiterock Road area the day before”.
Mo knew instantly that it had to be Dad because of the name and because he hadn’t come home the night before. Mo screamed and remembers Mum rushing into the room from the kitchen. Mo showed her the newspaper and she says she can remember Mum’s screams to this day – there was pandemonium.
We didn’t have a telephone so a neighbour came to help us get in touch with hospitals.
The police were also called.
It took some time to find out where Dad was.
Once Mo and Mum were sure it was Dad, they called all the family at home and away and everyone came home to Belfast as quickly as they could.
I flew home from England on hearing the news. I will never forget that day or those that followed. My children, who were living with my parents at the time were understandably very upset, as were all the family.
The older children were able to go to the Hospital to see my father however he was unconscious so we never got to speak to him again. Michael was unable to face going to the Hospital and while Bernadette went to visit, she was advised by a nurse not to go to see him but to remember him as he had been.
As I grew older, I became more aware of what I – and my Father – have missed out on. I was robbed of my Father.
Agnes, my sister, remembers she was 21 years old at the time of my Daddy’s death.
She remembers the feeling of numbness and shock when she was told about Daddy’s shooting. It was hard for her to fully comprehend what had happened.
She had recently visited Mum and Dad in Belfast.
When she had been home, she had gone out for the evening – for the very first time – with Daddy.
She had introduced him to her boyfriend (now her husband) they had had a lovely, relaxing evening chatting and getting to know each other as adults.
That feeling of closeness to her Father as a grown-up was never to happen again.
Agnes describes the days that followed Dad’s death as very traumatic.
The way our Mother found out about our Father’s shooting was awful and cruel. Agnes doesn’t think she ever got over the shock of it.
The newspaper reports about Daddy being in the IRA, were terrible lies which only made matters worse. As a family we were devastated by the untruths spoken about our father.
Daddy surviving for a week in the hospital and then passing away, was heart breaking for us all.
The funeral was a terrible strain on the family, with my Mummy, brothers and sisters all crying and being very upset and very distressed.
It is something I would never want to see or experience again.
Agnes remembers on her wedding day thinking that her Daddy should be there giving her away. She feels that it was just not right or fair that he was not there to be with her on that special day.
Over the years, if Daddy had been alive, he would have seen Agnes’ children and grandchildren grow up. They would have had a grandfather and great grandfather but Agnes’ family were robbed of this natural pleasure.
Agnes feels very deeply that her life would have been better and more enriching if her Daddy had not been taken away from us so young.
My sister Margaret says she has a lot of memories of the time Daddy was shot.
She remembers the phone call from Mo to tell her Daddy had been shot. She was at work in a hotel and went to the hospital but the staff wouldn’t let her see him that day.
She then went home to find our Mother distraught. Margaret says it was bedlam. Lots of people were calling in at home and we were still in the dark about what had happened and why.
It was a long nine days until Daddy died but she remembers when they brought him home.
Margaret members that, before the funeral, a General or a Major from the British Army came and apologised to our Mother for what happened. She only vaguely remembers the Inquest. Our Mother, John and Margaret were there.
Margaret often wonders what all our lives would have been like if Dad had lived, how he would have been with all the grandchildren and great grandchildren and how we’ve all done in our lives.
She has a lot more memories – too many to write about right now – just writing this has made her very emotional.
Mo, who had been living at home found it very difficult after Dad’s death. Within a few months, Mo couldn’t cope with living and working in Belfast, because so much had changed at home. After much thought, she emigrated to Australia with a friend in November 1971. She lived and worked there for 2 years, got homesick, returned home only to find she couldn’t cope again and returned to Australia after a year. She returned a couple of years later, again because she missed the family. She worked in Belfast, however, she still found it hard, home wasn’t the same so in January 1980 she came to England to live with me. She has since lived in England and has worked for me for 38 years. She met her partner in 1992. As Mo grew older, she became more aware of what she and my Father have missed out on. – Dad never got to meet Mo’s partner Stephen. Just like all the family she found it hard especially on the anniversary of his death. Just recently, she’s admitted that she didn’t want to get married because Dad wasn’t there to give her away – that was news to all of us.
Bernadette was only 11 at the time our Father’s death and it is hard for her to remember much of what happened.
She was in bed when her sister Mo read the article in the Irish News and all she remembers was lots of crying and screaming.
When she came downstairs, our Mum had gone to our neighbours to phone to see what had happened and where Daddy was.
She later went to stay with our Aunt Lily and didn’t come back home until the funeral.
After the funeral Mass she went home with Mum, neither of us went to the graveyard. She really only remembers that Mo, Maggie, Michael and herself were still living at home and the house was so sad for a long time.
She does remember that it took a while for Mum to remember that she had been getting a shilling for her pocket money from Dad. She then made sure she got it every week!
Bernadette believes, like Agnes and Margaret, that she missed out on not having a Daddy to give her away when she married Colum and she wonders how he would have been with his grandchildren and great grandchildren.
She never knew him as an adult and feels the sadder for this.
Our brother Michael was supposed to travel with me to England while I was gathering all these memories together for the Inquest in Belfast. He was planning to make his contribution then.
However, this process has proven too stressful and upsetting for him and he is too upset to contribute as he would like.
I believe Daddy’s death affected Michael more deeply than any of us and his reaction to the inquest has brought this home to all of us.
The house Michael grew up in was very unhappy after Dad was killed, Mum struggled to come to terms with Dad’s death. Michael missed having a Father figure as he grew up, with Dad having been killed and his two elder brothers living away from home in England. We feel that Michael didn’t fulfil his potential at School although he did become a joiner, following in Dad’s footsteps.
Because of the Troubles in Belfast, from time to time Michael has lived and worked with me in England and, for a while, he was doing well. Unfortunately he had a bleed to the brain a few years back that has left him unable to work and he has struggled since then. He is finding the prospect of the inquest particularly upsetting and has come to stay with me for a while.
I was the first to marry and unlike my sisters, I was blessed that my Father not only gave me away but was present at my first wedding when I married at 18 in Belfast.
He got to know and love my two oldest children until he died.
I was also blessed with his support when my first marriage broke up and I owe him and my mother a debt of gratitude for supporting my children and I when I left to work in England in May 1971.
Dad never did get to know how his advice to me at that time was to prove right. I’ve missed him so much that at times it hurts.
My brothers Brian and John have since died – Brian in 1992 at 46 and John in 2011 at 65 but I know they felt the same as the rest of the family.
They missed his influence, advice, his love and his presence.
Following Daddy’s shooting, John and I tried to get some of the misreporting corrected but to be honest, I can’t remember if we were ever successful.
We were aware that it would have been important for our Daddy to have the misreporting corrected. My father had been a soldier in the British army in the Royal Engineers. From memory, he attended the Duke of York Military Academy in his youth and progressed into the army from there. He also boxed for his regiment. He was proud of his military career and was a member of the British Legion. He would not have wished to be associated with any paramilitary or terrorist organisation.
We had been brought up to live and let live.
An example of the misreporting about the circumstances of the death were claims that Dad had been attending an “IRA” funeral when in fact he had been working at the Church and was asked to stop work while the funeral took place of a young lad who had drowned while fishing. It was as he was leaving the Church that he was shot.
It was also reported that he’d had a gun in his right hand. He didn’t have a right hand. He’d lost his right hand while serving in the British Army during the Second World War. Since then he had to wear a steel prosthesis over his stump which enabled him to attach his tools – mostly a small steel hammer. He was also able to attach a tool that enabled him to play snooker and billiards.
At the hospital the sister-in-charge of Intensive Care told my brother and I that the bullet in his head had been recovered and had been given to the police as evidence.
Yet as I understand it from the inquest, that wasn’t the case.
There is nothing in this world that will ever fill the void that his death has left for all of us.
My mother loved and missed him to the day she died.
As we all did, Mum suspected that we hadn’t been told the truth about his death and for years we thought that his was an isolated case.
It wasn’t until some years ago that we learned of all the other deaths over 3 successive days in the Ballymurphy area.
We then realised that all those families were probably hurting as much as we were.
Our objective in seeking another inquest isn’t to ask that someone be punished it is to find the truth about our Dad’s death.
As the years have gone on without the truth being known, it has given rise to more questions, the main ones being “Who shot my father, Why and What is being covered up?”
We, as a family, hope to learn this before we all depart this world.
A final note, our family has found it very difficult writing this because our long controlled emotions have finally came to the surface.
This has made it extremely difficult for us but Daddy’s death has been misreported so many times in so many places, it will be good to set the record straight.
We now hope, as a family, that we will get some sense of finality.
If the inquest does find the truth it will help us all a little. Please God that it does.