On 17 June 1994, when I was twelve and in form one, an ex-pupil with a grudge came to Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, Northern Ireland. He carried with him an improvised flamethrower, with which he attacked the sixth-form pupils who were sitting their A-Levels in the assembly hall. Six boys were hurt, three of them seriously enough to need skin grafts.
In the last years of the armed conflict known as the Troubles, naturally some of us thought it was a terrorist attack. And as many people observed at the time, it is a painful outcome of the Troubles that we had considerable medical expertise locally in treating burns injuries. Afterwards, the school community raised funds to buy the hospital a new skin grafting device.
Then as now, non-Troubles-related attempts at mass murder were rare in the UK. Two years later, the Dunblane Primary School massacre occurred, in which a former scout leader murdered sixteen children and their teacher, and injured fifteen other people. The standards of media behaviour in the 1990s were such that, when the Dunblane news broke, journalists turned up outside our school and harassed pupils going in for their thoughts on the events in Scotland.
The wider public response was one of horror. Both of these attacks, and the March 1994 knife attack at Hall Garth School in England, in which a twelve-year-old girl was murdered, were regarded as incomprehensible. The pupils at Hall Garth wrote to us all after it happened – then the one other school community in the UK who understood such a thing. Later, the Dunblane incident led to a ban on most private ownership of handguns in the UK, and in the longer term, increased surveillance and security became more standard in schools around the country.
When the Sullivan pupils were attacked, there was a fully operational British army base virtually next-door. The response from the Bomb Squad and emergency services was extremely fast. It says everything about Northern Ireland back then that, within a couple of days, the story was eclipsed in the news cycle by the subsequent Loughinisland massacre, in which six were murdered and five injured. Yet only now, watching the aftermath of yet another horror in America, does it fully settle for me just how many illegal weapons circulated in Northern Ireland back then, and how lethal the attack might have been had the attacker been obsessed not with fire, but with guns.
As it was, his victims suffered life-changing injuries, lifelong scarring. And the more we learned about the attacker and his motivations, the less sense it all made. In the days that followed, the details came through local gossip and news stories. Of course we turned out to know people who knew him – Holywood (and Northern Ireland at large) is like that.
He’d rented 18-certificate videos and then tutted to the video shop owner about their violence. His relationship with his family was typified by an arson attack at his brother’s home. He’d displayed a sticker calling Sullivan “the Skoda of the education system” – on his Skoda. The motive for the attack had been, he claimed, inadequate careers advice. To sum up, he was a man whose motives were incomprehensible even to himself, looking to lethally blame others for his problems.
I remember that a local newspaper at the time made a lot of hay with a mental health diagnosis the attacker might or might not have had, one I won’t further stigmatise by connecting it with his crimes. Reportedly, he’d had treatment, but that’s not some gotcha: an awful lot of us in Northern Ireland, have had, or lacked, mental health treatment. Damned out of his own mouth, not by his mental circuitry but his actions, unable to explain his behaviour or make sense of his plan, he got six life sentences, and died in prison three years later.
And I never ever thought, back then, that we would all become so familiar with boys and men (usually) like him; with seeing our entire social media timelines get into the psychological brace position when the first reports come out for what is always, somehow, the same story. I see that bracing in my American friends who’ve lost people to gun violence, or whose kids have to go to school the day after another atrocity. My friends here who’ve felt sectarian violence. My many friends with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions that will inevitably get thrown around online as the investigation proceeds, because it’s easier to scapegoat already marginalised people (who are more often victims than perpetrators of violence) than question the public’s access to weapons designed for war zones.
As guns and the politics of fear continue to damage another society, I think about how hard it was for us to get rid of our guns, here. How incomplete that work is. How incomplete peace is. How important it still is to try and build it. Most of all I hate that I’m seeing friends experience that repetitive dread and horror that we grew up with, that we know is not over so much as constantly, conscientiously and imperfectly held back by political process.
I’m old enough to remember that sick feeling of inevitability, the way we never went into town on a Friday, the adjustments and affordances ordinary families made in an unnatural situation, and whose equivalent American communities make now, as small children take part in active shooter drills. I want my friends there not to have to hope for the complicated relief of reading that the latest attacker is not of their ethnicity, their neurotype, their political persuasion. They are not about to witness a trial that debates whether people who share their diagnosis know right from wrong. Community stigma is a thing we know about over here too.
The situations of Northern Ireland, the UK and the USA are not identical, and it’s very important that, in laying these histories side by side, I don’t deny the white supremacist hold the gun lobby has on American powerbrokers. I draw parallels not because I would fatuously prescribe what worked, somewhat, here to a culture on the other side of the world, but because I remember when attacks on schools were rare, bizarre – not yet normalised or politicised. I remember being able to respond to ours as a horrifying one-off, something we didn’t have to fear would happen again. Because enough time has passed, because my classmates and I were unscathed, stories of school shootings don’t automatically bring it back, every time.
But sometimes, like this past week, I do think about it and it doesn’t let go – because I remember the time before this was routine.