Focus of new documentary on responders who picked up the pieces during Troubles

The Troubles' legacy is far-reaching, our society still deeply wounded by violence and trauma. William Graham spoke to 'second responder' David Bolton, whose experiences of providing emotional assistance to those immediately affected by events such as the Omagh bombing are the focus of a new film

David Bolton, founding director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation, in The Quiet Shuffling of Feet
David Bolton, founding director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation, in The Quiet Shuffling of Feet David Bolton, founding director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation, in The Quiet Shuffling of Feet

DAVID Bolton was in his garden near Tempo, Co Fermanagh, on August 15 1998 when he got the telephone call about the Omagh bomb. Later, as horrific events unfolded, he would experience a "Gethsemane moment.''

David is what is described as a 'second responder', going into situations to deal with the trauma experienced by relatives of those killed and injured. He tells his story in a new film titled The Quiet Shuffling of Feet, which receives its premier at the Fermanagh Live Festival next month.

The Omagh bombing killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, and injured hundreds of others. The title of the film is taken from the silence of the Enniskillen bombing funerals; the quiet shuffling of feet, a tear, a stifled cry, all there was to hear.

The film, produced by Fergus Cooper, tells one man's story but, in essence, it is a story of many of us who experienced some of the most searing moments of what was called 'the Troubles', particularly in terms of those who responded on the ground.

It is by any measurement a powerful film which has a sorrow to it but also a softness or sense of inner gentleness. The language is very northern, in that "we try to do our best'' in even the most terrible situations.

On that August day two decades ago David rushed with his colleagues to Omagh and set up a trauma space in the town's leisure centre. Speaking to The Irish News, he recalled: "We were left with this group of people. We kind of understood that we were going to have bad news. Many of them feared the worst and as the evening wore on people were trying mobile phones and so on. It slowly dawned on them what was happening.

"Of course, a formal process was being followed with the police. There was a procedure to follow. We brought people aside... the people identified as being likely to have relatives killed in the bombing. It was that kind of waiting and watching with people... until the news came through. You were trying to uphold them and just looking after them and getting them a cup of tea.''

This Gethsemane moment is central in The Quiet Shuffling of Feet. David said: "I thought about the idea of keeping watch and that is why I thought about the word Gethsemane. It had that kind of feel about it and here we were just sitting with people and waiting.''

A Gethsemane moment is also like being overwhelmed at a time of crisis or, as David described it, "an existential crisis where your whole world is turned upside down".

People in Omagh and visiting the town went out that morning in the sunlight expecting to see each other in the evening. That they didn't would be a lot for any of us to process.

"It is a crisis of the soul as much as of the mind... and so hard to get to grips with,'' said David, who is is founding director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation and who at that time was director of community care with the health trust.

I asked him about the effects on second and first responders of being called to the scenes of such tragedies and how it had affected him personally. He said many people are affected including not only police and hospital staff but also journalists, photographers, undertakers and forensic experts.

"I know this from personal contacts and also through working on the impact all of this has on public servants and others who essentially act on our behalf to pick up the pieces, literally, and to try and manage situations. The pressure is immense and in some cases these people have suffered greatly as a consequence of their experiences.''

He himself had been deeply affected by these experiences on an emotional and spiritual level, he said, but thankfully he did not suffer mental health disorder to any great extent.

He acknowledged that indeed there were colleagues, in the business of trying to help others, who were deeply affected.

The making of the film was for David an organic process which underwent several changes over time. In his understated way, he said he was "content with it',' but he rightly pointed out: "It is good that we remind ourselves of what the Troubles has done to us.''

He hopes that the new generation, who did not directly experience the Troubles, will watch the film.

The film does indeed bear witness "to the dreadfulness of it all because we need to remember why it was so important to make peace" as "the Troubles were so bad".

During our interview I recalled visiting Omagh memorial garden some years ago and seeing an inscription quoting the great Ulster poet John Hewitt and the line... "bear in mind these dead''.

David said it was important that we do that and that we need to rehumanise ourselves as a community; one way of doing that is to have reverence regarding those who died and to continue to care for those who suffer either physically or mentally.

He pointed to the words of Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bombing: "I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.'' This, according to David, is about us as a people, letting go "as far as we can'' and "also being mindful of those who differ from us and who see the world differently".

At the time of the Good Friday Agreement there was an opportunity, in David's view, to put in place a major programme for the care of those bereaved or injured or psychologically damaged by the Troubles, that it would have been good to see something along these lines established as quickly as the Patten commission and other reforms.

"While much water has passed under the bridge and, sadly, for some people it is too late, I still think we need to be thinking about strategic long-term responses to the impact of the Troubles," he said.

He calls the Troubles "an incredibly devastating stresser on this community" with visible intergenerational effects, and says their legacy amounts to "a long-term health emergency which needs further investments in mental health services".

As for the peace process itself, healing and reconciliation, it is a work in progress and, mindful of causing hurt, "we need to tend it like a garden".

:: The Quiet Shuffling of Feet will be screened at the Fermanagh Live Festival on Monday October 7 at the Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen (tickets £10).