Skip to Content

Coffee House

When Dublin trembled

17 May 2011

6:00 PM

17 May 2011

6:00 PM

On 17 May 1974 — 37 years ago today — I was a 19-year-old student at Trinity College Dublin, celebrating the end of term in the Pavilion Bar near the sports fields. The summer exams
were still to come, but we were carefree; the main subject of conversation was whether we could organise a disco party later on. Then, a little after 5.30 p.m., everything changed. First, all about
us seemed to shiver, as if there were an earth tremor. Then, just as it occurred to me that Dublin did not generally suffer tectonic stress, there was a deafening bang that seemed to go on for an

Somebody shouted: ‘It’s a fucking bomb!’

What I did next may seem strange, but I was an avid photographer, used to recording the world around me, and I took my camera almost everywhere in a little canvas bag. It was with me that day. I
grabbed it and dashed out, heading straight for South Leinster Street, the source of the ear-splitting noise.

I passed through a side gate and found myself taking picture after picture of a street full of destruction: people running to and fro past large glassless gaps in shops and offices. Now there was a
strange billowing sound interspersed with crackling noises. I took a few more steps before I saw where it was coming from: a red sports car, ablaze and giving off pungent smoke and waves of
piercing heat. My eyes watered and I found it hard to breathe. The street was covered in debris. Around me were people with fear etched on their faces. Some had cuts and clothing torn away; one
teenage boy’s forehead was caked in blood.

Suddenly, from my right, two men in shirt-sleeves advanced with confident strides on a burning corpse, with a large white sheet or towel held in front of them. They quickly doused the flames. With
the fire out, the men stood back and stared at the lifeless victim they had just rendered assistance to. One of the men had his knees slightly bent and made a hurried sign of the cross — and,
as he did so, I saw his lips move as if in prayer, but I could not make out a single word of what was being said. I wondered momentarily if my hearing had been affected.

I took several paces forward and observed that the dead person was scorched black by being so close to what I surmised to be the epicentre of the explosion. There was no blood visible and I could
just make out that the victim was female on account of her badly-singed shoes with heels beside her lifeless feet on the pavement. I felt compelled to look away as I felt my insides lurch

Eventually, after what seemed a long time, the emergency services arrived. On South Leinster Street, two women had been killed instantly and many injured. Elsewhere in Dublin and Monaghan, some 33
other people were killed and almost 300 wounded: this day saw the largest number of casualties in any single day of "The Troubles".

I still wonder about this awful experience now even after 37 years and I have an inkling of what it must be like for those who have experienced. You can see one of my photographs at the top of this
post, and selection of others below:

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments


The Spectator Comment Policy

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.