Caring role took its toll

UNLIKE many of the high-profile deaths that have scarred the Province's recent catastrophic history, the Claudy Bombing stands isolated in the annals of time as a forgotten atrocity.

No celebrities or sports stars visited the village to show empathy or express sympathy in the traumatic weeks that followed and in those days, now almost 40 years ago, counselling wasn't even offered to the bereaved, never mind those who worked to help restore some sense of normality to the village and it's inhabitants.

It was a bright summer morning but the three no-warning car-bombs exploded and shattered the idyllic rural calm. The first went off at around 10.15am or 10.20am (reports differ slightly) outside McElhinney's pub and petrol station. The second exploded outside Mary and Ernie Hamilton's hotel - the Beaufort - minutes later as people scrambled away from the first bomb. The final device went off outside the Post Office. In less than 15 minutes, six people lay dead. Three died later from their injuries. Three of the victims had not even made it to adulthood.

As is always the case, those who seek to mete out terror and mayhem run from the source of the pain and horror they seek to inflict. Others, most notably the emergency service personnel, run towards the danger, sacrificing their own personal safety as their training kicks in and their priority is to tend to the injured, traumatised and dead or dying. On July 31, 1972 one of those people was Ray Elder, who was one of two doctors in the health centre. His memories are as vivid today and they were when he raced to help the injured and dying, and he recalls how he did not know it then, but he had been suffering all the hallmarks of post traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the atrocity.

On the day after the first bomb exploded Ray was in the health centre. He is not quite sure what time the first device detonated, but recalls it was early in the working day.

"It went off very shortly after I started the surgery and I whistled up - I took the car up from the health centre. I lived at that stage on the Main Street, which was down a little bit from where the Post Office was which was then on the opposite side from which it is now.


"So I went up, had a look at the devastation, went down to the house to phone in for ambulances and things...bearing in mind this was Operation Motorman and the town seemed to be fairly well closed off.

"Did that, came up. Parked the car outside Eakin's shop..." he pauses to catch his breath and I am conscious that in his mind, Dr Elder can still 'see' the scene in his mind's eye.

"It was pretty devastated I'm sure..." I said filling part of the void that has opened up in the conversation.

After a beat, Ray replies: "It was, yeah...It wasn't that devastated, but there was a lot of damage around there. I parked there and went to attend to other people...Mrs McElhinney beside the petrol pump and the pub, where the Spar is now. I think Mrs McLaughlin I saw across at what was probably where the butcher's was now, there was a shop there and she had suffered serious injury, and there was another chap and he had a very nasty shrapnel wound and he was dead or he died subsequently and there was another young lad, and I did what I could for them.

"I think I was up and down to the house a couple of times and I noticed a blue car sitting outside the Post Office that I did not recognise, and I remember thinking to myself as I walked past it 'I wonder who owns that?' and I walked on. This was after the first bomb had gone off. My recollection was that it was about three-quarters of an hour before the other ones went off, I remember it was quite a significant period of time before they did," he says quietly.

I recount a snippet or two of my conversation with Mark Eakin and between us we discover that after the first bombing it was Dr Deehan, Ray's colleague, who rendered medical assistance to Kathryn inside the family's shop, while Ray tried to help people on the street. Interestingly, both doctors still live near the village.

Sadly, the Claudy Bombing was not Ray's first experience of working or being near the scene of an explosion in 'The Troubles' and for a moment or two the conversation diverges with Ray admitting: "I have seen quite a few more effects of bombings. I had worked in forensics in Belfast for over a year and knew the results of it - you didn't see the bomb, but you saw the bits and pieces of people, so you had a fair idea of what caused what to people."

The blue one

Our discussion veers back on track: "I sorted out as much as I could on the top part of the street and Sergeant Desmond Jones was there, he was the main man who was also doing whatever he could, and I said 'Desmond I don't think there is anything more I can do here, I'm going down to the health centre to see if I can do anything', and all he said to me was 'Remember there's a bomb in the blue one'."

"We were standing ooh, how far away from it were we? I'd say not as far as that wall out there," he says, pointing out the window to a wall in the yard a mere 45 feet from the window - from the top side of the crossroads to where the Post Office origninally was.

"I remember thinking to myself 'Is it worth the risk walking down there?' I never got the chance to decide whether or not I was going to get into the car and move it or whether I was going to just walk down to the health centre..I ehm... the thing went off while we were standing there."

"What did it feel like to be caught like that," I ask.


"I just remember the silence. There was no bang...everything just dissolved in a cloud of brown smoke," he says gesturing with his hands, and adding: "There was a sensation - I mean you knew it happened in front of you - but I also got the sensation that something happened to one side of me, you know, as though it were a pressure wave off something, and I think that was the second one going off down at the Beaufort Arms. The two went off simultaneously. I remember thinking to myself 'If you don't know what is going to fall on you and you are in the middle of the road then you better stay there'. So, I stayed there. There were three of us just standing in the middle of the road and none of us suffered anything. I know there was another fellow who was a fireman who was attending to Artie Hone. I was of the opinion Artie was hit by more shrapnel from that second blast and I know the fireman was hit on the legs by shrapnel.

"I remember walking over and wandering into the wreck of what was the Post Office and thinking to myself 'Well, I am safe in here'. It didn't look safe mind you. There wasn't anybody in it and I didn't know that they had all been warned and it had been evacuated," Ray says.

It is one of the strange things about life and how a person's mind can operate under extreme circumstances, but Ray had only the night before the bombing left his wife into Altnagelvin and was awaiting news of the imminent arrival of their first son, and was unaware of all the damage down near the Beaufort, and it was his medical and forensic training that insulated him in the minutes and hours after the bombs went off.


Despite what he was seeing on the ground, Ray was aware that people around him were afflicted with numbness, but there was also a tremendous willingness of people to do something to help. One of the most bizarre images he has in his head even today, is of people coming out of their homes with brooms and simply starting to sweep up.

"It still seems funny," he says. "People who would have been of a somewhat depressive nature when they visited us in the health centre suddenly perked up and were brushing glass and were cleaning up furiously and had taken a new lease of life. They had to be doing something. There was a tremendous amount of help.

"I could tell you stories of people who were seen on top of rooves putting tarpaulines over buildings which wasn't their usual work. In our three houses we got a supply of builders' materials courtesy of our next door neighbour who was a builder. He wasn't there at the time but when he heard what had happened he drove a lorry and got a load of bits and pieces for making windows and things like that - wooden struts for windows and polythene sheets for the windows, things like that."

The damage to Ray's home was mostly confined to the windows and in the midst of the chaos that the bombs created for his work, Ray also had to contend with the birth of his first son, and he was conscious of the fact that things needed to be tidied up at home before his wife and newborn child came home.

Fortunate position

"I was in the fortunate position where I had another house bought on the Craig Road with the intention of renovating it. So I renovated it very quickly because someone else needed this one that I was in that we were renting."

I am aware that I am conversing with a man who is highly trained to deal with stressful sights, but I can't help wondering if the bombing ever played on Ray's mind: "Hmm, not as far as...not at the time, not at the time and not here, but certainly I did go to work a year after in Belfast and there I found that I had a lot of anxieties about where we were and what was in the car in front of you and what was in the car behind and things like that...eventually we moved back..." he says quietly reflecting.

Was it post-traumatic stress syndrome?

"Yeah...I think so. I talked to a professional years later about did make changes to my life and it did influence my life in a lot of ways. I just felt I could not stay in Belfast, I felt sort of half safe here, but the time I talked to the psychiatrist all those anxieties were gone, but the effect that they had had on particularly my career had obviously occurred and you cannot undo what you did," he said.

"But you chose to come back to Claudy," I reply.

"I felt safe. I think we all felt safe. I think we all felt nobody would come here and do anything like this on us again, you know. I think everybody had that sort of feeling. There was that sort of feeling - and there were barricades erected, legal barricades I mean, and gates that were closed at certain times. When all that was installed there was only one way in and one way out after 11pm at night. So yeah, I sort of felt safe in a bizarre Belfast I never really felt safe."

It was 1974 and in Belfast residents would have heard shootings most nights - Ray would have seen the results of that the next day in the hospital wards or in the mortuary.


"When you saw the ambulances parked outside A&E you could almost tell from the way they were parked if they had brought another shooting in," he said.

But in those days the attitude was 'get on with it', and when asked what it felt like to hear that an eight-year-old and two young people in their mid-teens had been killed in his village, Ray thinks quietly for a moment before saying: "I suppose in Belfast you knew of those things and that children were blown up, but in Claudy there was so much trauma there already...there was so much of it...and whilst the young ones particularly you felt very sad about, you felt sad about everybody including those who were injured...but there was no doubt there were a lot of children in various parts who were caught up in one way or another in whatwas euphemistically called 'the Troubles'. I remember one wee lad in Belfast who was blown up by a booby-traped transistor radio left in a chip shop I remember..."

"Your memories of it are obviously very clear despite the fact that it was 38 years ago..." I say to fill the silence.

"You can almost flash though various individual pictures, you know? This happened here, this happened don't have a complete picture but you have various pictures that aren't really was here and had a hole in their chest, I have an idea what caused that...those sort of things," he says.

Listening to Ray I form the personal opinion that in life no one should ever have to witness, much less try and 'heal' the hurt and harm that sometimes gets inflicted on others by their fellow human beings. However, I am convinced the Dr Elder's and Deehan's efforts on that terrible day are to this day still treasured as curative gems amid the chaos that shattered so many lives and livelihoods.