'A funeral a day' and a sombre St. Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland

The familiar tricolour Irish flags were on display in Belfast on March 17, 1988, but that St. Patrick's Day didn't have the feel of a national holiday in Northern Ireland.

Deaths, funerals and mourning of the dead were constants in violent series of events in March 1988

'A funeral a day'

35 years ago
Duration 2:36
On St. Patrick's Day in 1988, the CBC's Sheila MacVicar reports on recent violence that had unfolded in Northern Ireland.

The familiar tricolour Irish flags were on display in Belfast on March 17, 1988, but that St. Patrick's Day didn't have the typical feel of the national holiday in Northern Ireland.

Not when scores of people lay in hospital, after they were injured by a loyalist gunman who threw grenades at an Irish Republican Army (IRA) funeral held the day before at the city's Milltown Cemetery.

And when three other mourners lay dead as a result of attending the funeral, which was for three dead IRA members.

"Those memories were on everyone's mind today," the CBC's Knowlton Nash said, when introducing a story on yet another funeral stemming from the long conflict that then had raged in the region for two decades, known as the Troubles.

More violence, more death

Questions about Gibraltar incident

35 years ago
Duration 0:28
Peter Mansbridge introduces a follow-up report on the deaths of 3 IRA members in Gibraltar in March of 1988.

The entire month of March had been marred by violence — including an incident in Gibraltar, which saw three IRA members killed after British special forces fired upon them.

The IRA members — Dan McCann, Sean Savage, and Mairead Farrell — were reportedly planning a bomb attack. They had also been unarmed when they were shot.

"Eyewitnesses say they heard no warning when plainclothes British soldiers opened fire and killed all three," the CBC's Sheila MacVicar told viewers on The National two days later, as details gradually revealed the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

Their deaths raised questions as to whether the British government had a "shoot-to-kill" policy for dealing with Irish republican militants. 

'A tougher line towards terrorism'

Edmund Curran of the Belfast Telegraph talks to As It Happens about one of the possible implications of the shooting of 3 IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988.

Edmund Curran, the deputy editor of the Belfast Telegraph, believed that at the very least, the British government had taken a harder position on dealing with groups like the IRA.

"I think it's true to say that certainly [commando]-style tactics are now being employed and that government in Britain ... is adopting a tougher line towards terrorism," he told CBC Radio's As It Happens, when discussing the shootings the day after the IRA members were killed.

McCann, Savage and Farrell's deaths also prompted outrage in Belfast, where riots broke out and cars were burned in protest.

'Get down! Get down! Get down!'

Mourners hold flowers during the funeral of the three IRA's members killed in Gibraltar by British secret agents, on March 16, 1988 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images)

It was their joint funeral that brought thousands of people to Belfast's Milltown Cemetery 10 days later, the shocking event that saw the mourners attacked.

The attack took place in full view of media who were at the cemetery to cover the IRA funeral, and as such, TV viewers around the world saw images of the mourners fleeing the attack and heard the sounds of their stress and their fear.

The CBC's Elizabeth Gray provides a report on the March 16, 1988, on a funeral at Belfast's Milltown Cemetery.

"Get down! Get down! Get down!" one man was heard yelling as the attack raged, in some of the footage shown on The National.

Audio from the attack was later played on CBC Radio's Sunday Morning, giving listeners a sense of the terror the people caught in the line of fire would have felt.

During the funeral of the three IRA's members killed in Gibraltar by British secret agents, the crowd of mourners dives for cover as loyalist gunmen open fire with gun and grenade attack on the people around the graveside in a cemetery on March 16, 1988 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images)

"All told, the man in the blue windbreaker threw five grenades and fired as many times from a Browning automatic pistol, into the faces of his pursuers, before they brought him down amidst the traffic of a distant motorway," the CBC's Elizabeth Gray said.

"And the watching mourners cheered, even as the burial service continued, even as word trickled back that members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary had arrested the man, thus saving him from certain death."

The gunman, Michael Stone, was handed a hefty prison sentence, but ended up being released at a much earlier date as a result of the eventual Northern Ireland peace process.

Anger at police

Sinn Finn President Gerry Adams is seen speaking to the media about the Milltown Cemetery attack on March 16, 1988. (The National/CBC Archives)

The police had kept their distance at the Milltown funeral and that had people pointing fingers at the RUC after the violence had unfolded.

Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, accused the police of colluding in the attack — a charge police said was absurd.

"We are asserting that they had pre-notice and there was collusion," Adams said, when speaking to the media after the fact.

"You yourselves, many of you came here, because you or your bosses thought the RUC or the British army would be there in strength."

'A funeral a day'

British army members conducted a sweep of the Milltown Cemetery the day after the deadly attack on an IRA funeral there. (The National/CBC Archives)

For people living in Belfast, there did not appear to be much hope that the violence would end any time soon.

"It wouldn't happen in any other part of the world — only here," said one woman, when speaking to a reporter in a Catholic part of Belfast, about the attack at the cemetery.

"And the army ... they're here whenever we don't want them and whenever they were needed yesterday, they weren't there."

This man said he and other Belfast residents had seen "a funeral a day," as a result of mounting violence in March of 1988. (The National/CBC Archives)

A man holding a baby summed up the ever-mounting series of formal mournings for those killed in the Troubles.

"There's a funeral a day," he said.

Indeed, there was another funeral that day, for Kevin McCracken, an IRA member who was shot dead days earlier.

'A declaration of republican support'

The CBC's Sheila MacVicar showed viewers images of people marching in a St. Patrick's Day parade in Belfast, at a time when repeated acts of shocking violence had unfolded -- including at a recent funeral. (The National/CBC Archives)

"With chants of 'IRA, IRA,' the mourners joined in the St. Patrick's Day parade," MacVicar told viewers in her report on The National.

"Here, this is not just Irish heritage, but a declaration of republican support."

MacVicar noted there had been appeals for calm, though also an expectation that violence would like return in future.

Two days later, yet another funeral was held for Kevin Brady, an IRA member who died in the Milltown attack — and a small mishap occurred, providing the spark for further violence and further loss of life.

Two British soldiers — Derek Wood and David Howes — were riding in a car that ended up in the middle of the IRA procession and tried to exit the situation. They were dragged out of their car by a mob and then beaten and shot to death.

MacVicar, again reporting on the Troubles, said Howes and Woods were two of just 10 people "to die in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in just one week."