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19 May 2022

"I am one of the lucky ones because my daddy got to come home"

Caroline O'Donnell recalls the agonising wait for news of her father, Patrick, whose life had been saved by quick-thinking taxi drivers and his doctor after being shot, kicked, beaten and left for dead by British soldiers

"I am one of the lucky ones because my daddy got to come home"

Patrick O'Donnell was wounded on Bloody Sunday. His daughter Caroline said: "He was not wanting his children to be bitter in anyway of anybody."

“I don't know what it was,” reflects Caroline O'Donnell. “It was kind of like a sixth sense – I just knew that there was something wrong. So I kept standing at the window.”

Fifty years ago this weekend, a then-14-year-old Caroline was waiting for her daddy, Patrick to come home.

Patrick – who back then was 40 years of age, a father of six and a roofing contractor in Derry – had gone on the Civil Rights march on Sunday, January 30, 1972.

As Caroline's mother was preparing the tea, the minutes passed by with no sign of Patrick – lateness for tea would have been unlike him for, as Caroline says, he was very respectful of his wife's efforts in preparing and serving the family dinner.

But somehow, despite her age at the time, Caroline sensed that something was not right.

A knock on the door was soon met with relief as it was a case of the men having the wrong address – they would have the right one minutes later when they would tell nearby Joe Mahon's family that he had been wounded after being shot.

Caroline's relief was short-lived as there was soon another knock on the door – and this time, the men on the doorstep had the right address. Patrick had been shot.

“I was one of six children – the second eldest. I was fourteen on the day of the march.” continues Caroline. “Yet I am one of the lucky ones because my daddy got to come home.

“Others did not have their daddies home. I realise how blessed I was that my father did.

“With civil rights, my father would have been a lot more private about stuff back then because there was a lot of bother and trouble. But I know he would have been passionate about civil rights – just as a human being.

“But as for going on other marches, I know he didn't go out on any more of them after Bloody Sunday.

“He couldn't go into crowds anymore after that day. He didn't go out much after that day either. If we were having any celebrations or anything, you had to have it at his home with my mummy.

“My mummy went on the march as well but she went with her sisters. On the day of the march, I had my hopes up that I was going to it. Because when you were fourteen, there was just this pure buzz around the town and at that age you're thinking 'oh my God – this is going to be a great day'.

“I had my sights set on going to it and then I was told 'you're not – you're babysitting your brother and sister'.

“Back then, we lived up Southway. We waited at the bottom of our street to see the march go down. I walked with the march with my wee brother and sister and then we had to come back up again.

“On the march itself, whenever the rioting started, my mummy and her sisters left. My mummy came home and started making the tea and she kept saying 'your daddy's late' and 'what is keeping your daddy?'.

“I don't know what it was – kind of like a sixth sense – I just knew that there was something wrong. So I kept standing at the window.

“Away back in those days, not everybody had cars but I just kept waiting on any movement of traffic or anybody coming up or down the street.

“Like I say, it was kind of a sixth sense because my father would have been home. He would have been very respectful of my mummy making the tea and stuff like that.

“A mini-car came up the street. It turned around in the square and you could see it was looking for door numbers on the houses. I just kept thinking 'please don't let it be ours'.

“But the car did come up and two young fellas came to the door. They said 'does Joe Mahon live here?'. Joe was one of the others who was shot and wounded. But he lived in the street across from us.

“I told them where he lived and I thought 'thank God...it's not us'. But then another car came up the street and two fellas came up to the door. I answered it and they said, 'would you have a photograph of your father?'.

“I went to get my mummy and the whole thing kind of kicked off then. At this stage, you don't know if your loved one is dead or alive. We had an uncle who lived round the corner who had a car. My mummy asked me to run round and get him to take his car round so that she could get to the hospital.

“I remember running round and I had forgotten to put my shoes on. Rather than get back into the car with my uncle, I ran round home again – without my shoes. Your head was just all over the place.

“My mummy went to the hospital and our neighbours kept an eye on us because the oldest was fifteen and I was fourteen – the ages of me and my brothers and sisters went down to three.

“I remember a priest coming that night into the house and my mummy was back from hospital by then. I can't remember the priest's name but I remember his trousers were covered in blood. I kept thinking 'I wonder if any of that blood is my daddy's?'.

“When you were fourteen all those years ago, you were kept very much innocent or you were not outspoken or anything. If anyone came into the house, you were taught that children were seen and not heard.

“The priest was going round visiting houses of people who had been shot. I also remember all those knocks at the door all night when the neighbours had heard what had happened. Someone was sent round, who was probably eight or nine, to say 'my mummy wants to know if your daddy is still alive?'. They wouldn't have known the right way to put it.”

Eventually, what had happened to Patrick came to light. He had been shot and was wounded due to the bullet piercing his shoulder.

Not content with having shot him, British soldiers then ran across to beat him over the head with their rifle butts as well as kicking him with their steel toe-capped boots.

They then ran off, leaving him for dead only for nearby taxi drivers to emerge from their portakabin to come to Patrick's aid and drive him to a First Aid post in Creggan so that he could receive medical attention.

Caroline added: “It was probably around ten to or five to seven in the evening that we found out that my daddy was alive. Although my father was shot, the soldiers gave him a lot head injuries. They had kicked him and hit him with the butts of their rifles on his head – this was after he had been shot.

“My father was lying as if he was dead and I just remember hearing that there was taxi stands and portakabins then in William Street and that one of the men in there was shouting out to my father 'don't move, don't move – pretend you're dead'.

“Whenever the army left, those at the taxi stand got my father and brought him to a First Aid post in Creggan. My father's own doctor, Dr Fallon, came and got him from there. I think my daddy was the only one who didn't go (to hospital) via the army or the police.

“On the way there, Dr Fallon was telling my father, 'sit up, sit up Patsy. Let on you just fell and I'm taking you to hospital'. Dr Fallon had the 'doctor on call' sign on his car window so the army checkpoint just stopped him and then waved him on.

“Dr Fallon got my daddy to hospital and he was in there for about two weeks – although I can't remember exactly how long.

“It was said that his head injuries were more life-threatening than his bullet wound back at the time – that came out in the Saville Enquiry in the Guild Hall. But I would not have been aware of that at the time because my father, when he came home, didn't really talk about it much.”

The support and help that would be available today – both to survivors and their families – was not around in 1972. Back then, you had to get through a horrific event such as Bloody Sunday as best you could.

The day after her father was shot, Caroline was back at school while her father, once discharged from hospital, made an effort to carry on with life while keeping what had happened away from his children.

She said: “Away back in those days, you just dusted yourself down and got on with it. Because he had a wife and six children, with the youngest only three-years-old, I think he kept it all in to protect his children. My mother and father were both fantastic parents.

“However, after Bloody Sunday, he became very withdrawn. Before it happened, my father on a Saturday would have enjoyed going out with his friends for a few pints. That all stopped – even with any socialising with him and my mummy. As I said earlier, any celebrations had to take place at home because he didn't like crowds.

“He was not withdrawn with us. I could have brought my friends in and he loved that. You couldn't say he was no longer good fun as a daddy – he was. But regarding his social scene, there was a big change in him.

“Today that would be seen as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) but back then, I don't think that was known of. Especially for us children because my mother would have kept up the routine. The next day we were up and away back to school. We weren't allowed to stay off school or anything.

“Even away back then, a lot of people didn't have any phones, so I could have been sitting in the classroom at school and been thinking, 'when I go home today, is my daddy still going to be alive?'.

“You had the French teacher shouting down to you, 'Caroline O'Donnell! Where's your mind wondering!?', and you didn't even say to her, 'I'm worried about my father because he's in hospital and he has been shot'.

“Even away back then in those days, you didn't have what you have nowadays. The support that would be put in place today was not there back then. We just went back to school as normal. There was no 'you need to stay off because you must be kind of traumatised'. There was none of that.

“My daddy died in 2006 with cancer so he never saw the publication of the Saville Report. When that came out, there was this elation that it wasn't just for the families but for the whole of Derry. Maybe relief as well that finally, the truth has been told.

“My father did give evidence to the Saville Enquiry – he was so, so nervous. Maybe because he had to relive that day. Looking back now as an adult I felt 'oh my God daddy – it must have been horrific for you'.

“He didn't speak much about it when we were younger which was him trying to protect us. He had all those feelings bottled up to keep his family safe. I went with him on the day he was giving his evidence to Saville. There were some things that I had never heard before because of his fatherly protection.

“He was not wanting his children to be bitter in anyway of anybody.”

Three years ago, Soldier F was charged with the attempted murder of Patrick O'Donnell. However, last year the case was withdrawn and, with the Tory Government making moves to install an amnesty for all British soldiers accused of crimes committed during The Troubles, it seems likely that Caroline will not see the man accused of trying to kill her father in court.

She said: “With the proposed amnesty, I would be devastated for those families who had somebody murdered. I have a very good friend whose mummy was murdered in her back garden. I see and feel their pain all the time.

“I just think that to pull the carpet of amnesty like that is just not fair. Everybody should have their truth and justice.”

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