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Author's note: The following is an entry to Helel's Christmas contest, 2018.

Church winter snow 607073

Image sourced from public domain.

Early December, 1979

The snow sprinkled lightly over St. Paul Catholic Church in southern Derry, Northern Ireland. Hundreds of parishioners, well over the church's normal capacity, were gathered to mourn the untimely death of Father Douglas. Men, women, and children from all over Derry were gathered out in the cemetery behind the church to witness the burial.

David sat alone, watching the procession. Though he had only been in Ireland a few months, he had become good friends with a number of people. There were several men from the Army there, including two who were acting as pallbearers. They weren't in uniform, but he recognized their faces. Some of them were very active in the church, and a few of them were volunteering for the Advent season to help with the food drive and fundraising for orphans.

When the burial was over, David went over to the outdoor picnic area to mingle with people. His Uncle Thomas joined him.

"So what did you think of the funeral, Davy my boy?"

The 19 year-old shrugged. "To be honest it was a little fancier than I'm used to."

Uncle Thomas was the one who had taken David to Ireland to join the Army. David's grades were not good enough to get into college, and US military recruiters had all told him he was simply not a good fit for the service. David became bitter that he had just missed Vietnam by a few years. They would have taken him then. Desperate to make something of himself, he had started considering his options abroad, and Uncle Thomas was there at the right time. His parents wouldn't approve of it, but they didn't know. He had left a note simply saying he was leaving them.

"I feel you there, lad, but Father Douglas was a deeply respected man, so there you go. I'm just a little annoyed that they barely mentioned how he even died."

David nodded, although in his mind there was hardly any need to mention it. Not when there was a closed casket because the deceased had been charred to a crisp.

Uncle Thomas was always regarded as the black sheep of the family. From the time David was a child his parents had always told him to stay away from him at family gatherings. By the time David was a teenager, Uncle Thomas was no longer even welcome at them. But when David was having his personal crisis, Thomas had happened to be in New York on business, the two managed to fall into touch, and the rest was, as they say, history.

"But now at least you've seen with your own eyes what we're up against," Thomas continued. "I'm proud of you, David. I wanted to send you to a unit in Cork where you would be safer, but you insisted on joining an Ulster unit so you could serve on the front lines. You've got courage to give an old man hope."

Uncle Thomas wasn't that old, only in his late 50s, but David nodded again.

"And now you've gotten your first taste of the battle we face. The Unionists will stop at nothing to keep Ireland from being united. They don't care who they kill, as long as they can makes us Taigs suffer."

His face grew red with anger, along with David's. After a moment of silence, David asked "Why do you think they blew up the pub so late on a Tuesday, when the place was practically empty?"

"Well," Uncle Thomas tugged at his beard in reflection, "if you wanted to play Devil's Advocate you could say maybe they just wanted to send a message by destroying the building itself, and intended to minimize collateral damage by setting off the bomb at a time when there weren't many people. Some people on our side have speculated as much, but personally I think that's giving them way too much credit. They knew Father Thomas liked to stop by for a drink on Tuesday evenings, and they knew he had spoken out against them. It isn't that hard to put the pieces together to me."

"But why do you think they used a bomb instead of just shooting him? I thought the UUP avoided using explosives because they claim they don't want to harm innocents," David prodded.

The UUP, or Union of Ulster Protestants, were the group thought to be behind the bombing of the Corner House Pub and Tavern that killed Father Douglas. They were based in southern Derry, or Londonderry as they called it, and although they were fairly small compared to other Unionist paramilitary groups, their activities had been increasing over the past several months.

"And another thing," David continued. "This would be the first time the UUP has made an attack this side of the border. Didn't their newspaper say they intend to only attack targets within the Republic because they claim to want to spare British citizens from witnessing the violence?"

"Dammit, David, they're Unionists. You can't believe a word they say. And alright, maybe it wasn't the UUP themselves. Like you said, it isn't quite their MO. But if it wasn't them, it was another one of the Huns' murderin' terrorist groups. There are plenty of people in the UVF or one of their other allied groups who wouldn't be above blowing up a tavern just to kill one aging priest. Like I said, Father Douglas was very vocal in speaking out against their kind."

David didn't falter. "Uncle Thomas," his tone grew cold and accusatory "isn't it true that Father Douglas was just as critical, if not more so, of our forces as he was of the Unionists?"

That much could not be denied at all. In fact, Father Douglas had been among Northern Ireland's preeminent detractors of sectarian groups on both sides of the conflict. He had been working with the minister of the neighboring Anglican parish to help spread the message of peace. Their arrangement was that the Anglican minister would work through his congregation to attack Protestant militias and keep Ulster loyalists from joining them, while Father Douglas would focus on keeping Catholics from supporting the IRA. A certain particularly vitriolic missive against such groups, written by Father Douglas, had been widely circulated, and a specific passage in particular had been reprinted in several publications around the world:

Sectarian groups, be they the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Union of Ulster Protestants, or any other such self-proclaimed "armies", are both traitors and heretics of the highest order; traitors, because they subvert the just laws and terrorize the populations of their respective countries, undermine the rule of law, and bring scandal and shame upon the legitimate governments of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland; and heretics, because they blaspheme and take in vain the name of our Lord when they wave the banner of Christianity to promote their wicked causes. They promise a kingdom of heaven bought not with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, but with their own blood and the blood of their enemies as well as the blood of innocent bystanders. And they will made to answer, most severely, on Judgement Day.

As you all know, I hold both self-proclaimed "Catholic" Republican groups and Northern Protestant Unionist paramilitaries in equal regard as traitors and heretics before God. However, I believe the Lord has called me, indeed has called all Catholic priests and bishops in Ireland, to be most vigilant and aggressive in our suppression of the former. It is a known fact that violent Republican groups have been allowed to thrive in the past with the implicit or explicit support of certain segments of the Church and her clerics. This shameful state of affairs must be halted forthwith. An Irish parish that tolerates such groups is no better than an Italian parish that communes members of the Mafia despite knowing their affiliation.

Laymen who support the Provisionals and their associated militant groups must be subject to church discipline; those who actively assist them even more so— they should be denied communion, and those who formally join them as armed volunteers should be excommunicated as heretics. Likewise, any priest or bishop who supports violent Republicanism is guilty of a mortal sin and must be subject to the strictest of correction.

Father Douglas's scathing words had been used as a rallying cry by those calling for either a ceasefire agreement or increased government action against terrorist groups on both sides, and thus had made him the enemy of both.

Uncle Thomas sighed. "Yes, yes he was. Alright David, you've suspected something is up. You're as clever as you are brave, and I suppose there's no point in concealing what I know from you. The truth is, I've heard... rumors. I'm not saying it was us that did the bombing, but I'm saying it's more plausible than I'd like to admit, for the reasons you've said."

David's face grew sullen, and he began to turn away from his uncle.

"Now David, I understand that you're upset. But you must understand that both sides in this long war will do things that they won't always be proud of. The Army can't afford to lose the support of the Catholic masses, and if the higher-ups decided Father Douglas needed to die, well, I hope you can at least understand the decision."

"And what about the nun who had to be sent to the burn ward? And the girl, who's blind now? What about the barkeep who almost died, and the owner of the Corner House who has lost his business?" David demanded sourly.

"Well, if it was our side that did the attack, you can be sure the officers who planned it never set out to kill little girls and nuns. Sister Margaret suddenly showing up at the place to talk to Father Douglas about finding a home for the girl was not something the Army or the UUP could have planned for. As for the owner of the place, I'm sure he will be compensated if we are indeed responsible. Which is more than you could say for their side. This is war, David, and it's ugly. I hope you'll understand that the cause requires some ugly sacrifices sometimes."

David nodded. His face began to relax. "That's a good lad. Now come on, let's get out of the snow, I don't know about you but I'm starving."

A few days later, at a secluded farm house in Derry.

Thomas and some other men were gathered around a table. Among them was the one who had set off the bomb at the Corner House.

"So I'm in now, right? I did what you told me to."

"Yes, yes, you're in once we get a couple formalities out of the way. You know you could have pulled out and cancelled the job for another time when the nun and that girl came in to talk to the target. Next time use some sense, you idiot," Thomas said.

"I will not have that, sir! I will not have that at all! I had to time that operation down to the minute. I was sweating, waiting until it was just a couple minutes for the bomb to go off. There was no time to just pull out simply because some nun and an orphan got in the way. I expect a thank you."

"Fine, thank you. Now get the hell out of here. We will call you when we're ready to swear you in."

Once the bomber had left, one of the other men turned to Thomas. "So, are we still going to have him go after the Rector next?"

"No, I've changed my mind. Father Douglas being killed has generated more sympathy for our cause than I initially thought would happen. Sympathy which could be lost with a public retaliation. Best for our unit to lay low for a few months now. Let the UUP take out the Protestant bloke if he keeps forbidding his lay people from supporting them."

"Hey Thomas, how's the boy you recruited?" another man asked.

"He's a good kid, but to be honest I'm not sure he has the stomach for the fight. He started to suspect we were the ones behind the pub job, and I had to tell him more than I would have liked. Maybe I should have sent him to Cork after all. Then again, I've seen a lot of new recruits who were weak-kneed at first become some of our bravest fighters. Hopefully by next Christmas he'll recognize that the man had it coming and I'll be able to tell him everything. I just hate deceiving family members, you know."



Written by HopelessNightOwl
Content is available under CC BY-SA