Troubles men tell their stories

DRUMAHOE resident Kevin Kelly started experiencing flashbacks about five years ago.

Wednesday, 24th October 2012, 12:56 pm

Visiting local butchers’ shops or passing certain locations in Londonderry, powerful and upsetting memories would be triggered, to strong psychosomatic effect.

For example, the former CID detective would visit a butchers’ counter and be reminded of the aftermath of bomb sites, such as Ballykelly, Coshquin and Teebane - all of which he investigated.

Speaking to the Sentinel he explained: “The smell of human flesh comes back. When I went into the butcher it would trigger a response. And burnt flesh has a different smell. It’s a sweet smell.”

Sydney Trotter moved from Londonderry to Enniskillen back in 1966 and from there to Dundonald in East Belfast. After a friend was lifted for murder he became a loyalist activist with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

He ended up going around the city as a UDA bagman sticking up contractors to raise money for prisoners, their families and other things besides.

“Constructions sites and things like that. It spiralled from there,” he told the Sentinel. He ended up a prisoner himself and spent six years inside.

Adrian Duplock was a young soldier with the Royal Signals when the Remembrance Day bomb went off in 1987 causing mayhem and killing 12. Aged 19, he was based at the nearby Grosvenor barracks and was at the scene in 20 minutes.

“There was mass confusion,” he said. “There was an incredible amount of human noise with people screaming and shouting.”

Tomorrow night Kevin, Sydney and Adrian tell their remarkable stories in a new Theatre of Witness production called ‘Release’ at Londonderry’s Playhouse.

They’ll be joined by former Prison Governor William McKee, ex-prisoner Vincent Coyle whose nephew and Real IRA member Kieran Doherty was brutally murdered by the group in 2010, and community activist Paddy McCooey who survived a car bomb as a child.

The project is written and directed by Theatre of Witness founder Teya Sepinuck and is funded by the European PEACE III Programme, the aim of which is “to reinforce progress towards a peaceful and stable society and to promote reconciliation.”

Speaking to the Sentinel ahead of the production Kevin explained how he had retired from the PSNI in 2004 after spending more than a quarter of a century investigating some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles including the Coshquin and Teebane bombings.

It was a couple of years after Kevin’s retirement that he started experiencing what’s nowadays known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In the 1970s and 1980s, of course, in the testosterone-fuelled atmosphere of the CID there was no such thing. Some officers drank. They all got on with the job.

“At the time in the RUC a lot of the boys would drink and then come into work and continue. For me, I didn’t drink,” he said.

Larne-born, Kevin joined the RAF as a youngster but ended up joining the RUC in the late 1970s. During the maelstrom of violence, he was stationed at Strand Road.

“I went into the CID in 1982 initially for a month’s secondment but stayed there until 2004,” he told the Sentinel. “I fell into it, I suppose.”

Shortly, after joining the RUC investigation team Kevin lost his friend and mentor David Reeves (aged 24) when the IRA booby-trapped a TV in a Shantallow garage on June 11, 1982.

David was one of dozens of friends and colleagues Kevin lost during his career. “I’d lost 32 friends over the years,” he says.

Despite his involvement in 172 murder investigations between 1982 and 2004 it was only after his retirement and the diminishment of the high adrenalin levels that came with the job that he began to experience extreme anxiety in outwardly benign situations.

Triggers such as smell and location would have a dramatic effect on Kevin.

One spot where a young soldier had been shot dead in Londonderry in the 1980s affected him violently every time he passed it.

“A wee soldier was shot in the city centre,” he said. “I knelt down beside him to try to help but he was already dead. He was wearing a wrist watch. And I remember the watch kept ticking. I just remember thinking that time was just going on.”

Another location that had a similar effect was the site of the Coshquin bomb.

On October 24, 1990, the IRA forced 42-year-old Patsy Gillespie to drive a bomb into an army checkpoint at Coshquin.

A civilian cook for the army Patsy had previously been forced to drive a bomb into the Fort George base where he worked but had managed to jump free of the vehicle and shout a warning.

This time the IRA detonated the bomb using a firing mechanism connected to the van’s courtesy light killing Patsy and five young soldiers, Stephen Burrows (aged 30), Stephen Beacham (aged 20), Paul Worrall (aged 23), Vincent Scott (aged 21) and David Sweeney (aged 19).

Kevin was amongst the team of detectives and emergency services left to pick up the pieces. The quiet border location is another place that still haunts him.

“I went down to visit the site there near where the Three Flowers is as well,” he said. “Every time I would go down the smell of human flesh comes back.”

Not two years after Coshquin, Kevin was also on the scene of the Teebane cross massacre in Tyrone when the IRA killed eight workmen returning home on a Friday afternoon after a week’s work on an army installation in Omagh on January 17, 1992.

The IRA detonated a land mine under the group’s van killing David Harkness (aged 23), Gary Bleeks (aged 25), Robert Dunseath (aged 25) John McConnell (aged 38), James Caldwell (aged 37), Nigel McKee (aged 22), Robert Irons (aged 61) and Oswald Gilchrist (aged 44).

Kevin told the Sentinel what he witnessed at Teebane Cross. Some of it is unprintable. But it was the human element that stayed with Kevin.

“The sad thing about it was these men were coming home on a Friday night and their wallets and pay packets were left strewn all around the van. All the personal things are what stuck in my mind,” he said.

Kevin said his story is difficult for some to digest.

“I’ve seen things that - when I started telling my story - people were horrified. But they were just a matter of fact things. For example, when there was a sudden bomb explosion in a rural area you would look for the crows.

“Bits of flesh would end up in trees and electric cables. You would have to use nature to help you find the remains.”

He remembers that at some funerals coffins had to be lowered into graves containing very little human remains and that sand had to be placed in caskets to act as a ballast.

After being diagnosed with PTSD five years ago Kevin has since made a full recovery. He has spent the last few years coming to terms with his traumatic past and now works in prison fellowship.

He became a Born Again Christian in 2003 and this has helped him forgive those who murdered his friends.

Londonderry-born, Sydney Trotter’s father worked for the RUC in Rosemount. The family lived in Belmont before moving to Enniskillen back in 1966.

Fittingly, Sydney is no stranger to performing although he admits to having been initially hesitant about getting involved with the ‘Release’ project.

As a pupil at Enniskillen High School he’d always been involved in school shows and the like.

“I’d always been interested in the arts even back in Enniskillen, I’d always been involved in the pantomime,” he said.

It was partly under the stewardship of former Enniskillen High principal Ronnie Hill that Sydney’s love of the arts was nurtured. Ronnie died in 2000, 13 years after slipping into a coma following the Remembrance Day bombing. He was one of a number of people Sydney knew that had been killed or injured in the IRA attack.

“We’d left by the time of the Enniskillen Bomb but my former headmaster was killed and we knew people but I was up in Belfast at the time.”

It was in Belfast that Sydney joined the UDA.

“I got involved with the UDA after a friend of mine was lifted for murder,” he said. “I started raising money for prisoners and their families but it soon became illegal.”

Effectively he became a UDA bagman extorting protection money from building sites.

“Constructions sites and things like that and it spiralled from there,” he told the Sentinel.

He was jailed in 1987 for six years and thus fits the bill of the ‘Release’ project perfectly.

“In 1993 when I was released I got involved in the Community Arts forum and became an arts coordinator for about three years,” he said.

“It was Maureen Hetherington (of the Holywell Trust) who suggested Teya should speak to me.

“After the conversation I must admit I was little bit hesitant but it’s been a very good experience and I’m glad to have been part of it.”

Adrian Duplock was a young squaddie back in 1987 when he was deployed to Grosvenor in Enniskillen on his first tour with the Royal Signals.

During subsequent deployments he found himself in Belfast in 1990; in Bessbrook in South Armagh in 1997/98 at the time of the Omagh bomb; and in Ebrington between 1999 and 2003 towards the end of Operation Banner.

He was just 19 when his unit was tasked to the scene of the Enniskillen bomb in November 1987.

“There was mass confusion,” he said. “There was an incredible amount of human noise with people screaming and shouting.”

It was a baptism of fire for the London born soldier who had joined the army aged just 16.

A lifelong soldier Adrian went to complete numerous tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I was back in 1990 in Belfast with the Scots Guards and in 1997/98 was in South Armagh at the time of the Omagh bomb, which was a very deflating experience,” he said.

Despite the demoralising effect of Omagh, Adrian said that during a subsequent deployment to Londonderry, it was noticeable how things had progressed.

“From 1999 to 2003 I was based at Ebrington and it was a good bit better. Compared to what it was like back in 1987 when I first came here.

“There were hardly any vehicle check points. Things were becoming normal,” he said.

Like Sydney he sees the ‘Release’ project as extremely worthwhile - a cathartic and humanising experience for everyone involved.

He said that speaking to people like Vincent Coyle, he began to get an insight into the roots of the Troubles, beyond 1969, where his own knowledge had previously abruptly stopped.

It’s been an educational experience, he told the paper, which has allowed everyone to see things from another mans’ perspective.

“It’s a good project and brings people together and allows them to see the human beings behind the labels and the uniforms,” he said.

With original music by internationally acclaimed Brian Irvine and Film by Declan Keeney, ‘Release’ premiers at the Playhouse on Thursday, October 25 and will perform another 11 shows at venues throughout Northern Ireland and the Border Counties.