Father Regan was lighting a candle in his dark classroom at the foot of the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Regan permitted no overhead lights when he gave his formal religious address at the beginning of our last year in school. Regan was small, neat, economical. After he said ‘Boys,’ he stopped for a bit and looked at us. Then he dropped his eyes and kept them down until he said, more loudly this time, ‘Boys.’ He had complete silence this time.
‘Some of you here, one or two of you perhaps, know the man I am going to talk about today. You may not know you know him, but that doesn’t matter.
‘More than thirty years ago, during the troubles in Derry, this man was arrested and charged with the murder of a policeman. The policeman had been walking home one night over Craigavon Bridge. It was a bleak night, November, nineteen hundred and twenty-two. The time was two in the morning. The policeman was off duty; he was wearing civilian clothes. There were two men coming the other way, on the other side of the bridge. As the policeman neared the middle of the bridge, these two men crossed over to his side. They were strolling, talking casually. They had their hats pulled down over their faces and their coat collars turned up for it was wet and cold. As they passed the policeman, one of them said “Goodnight” and the policeman returned the greeting. And then suddenly he found himself grabbed from behind and lifted off his feet. He tried to kick but one of the men held his legs. “This is for Neil McLaughlin,” said one. “May you rot in the hell you’re going to, you murdering bastard.” They lifted him to the parapet and held him there for a minute like a log and let him stare down at the water – seventy, eighty feet below. Then they pushed him over and he fell, with the street lights shining on his wet coat until he disappeared into the shadows with a splash. They heard him thrashing and he shouted once. Then he went under. His body was washed up three days later. No one saw them. They went home and they said nothing.
‘A week later a man was arrested and charged with the murder. He was brought to trial. But the only evidence the police had was that he was the friend and workmate of Neil McLaughlin, who had been murdered by a policeman a month before. The story was that, before McLaughlin died on the street where he had been shot, coming out of the newspaper office where he worked, he had whispered the name of his killer to this man who had been arrested. And this man had been heard to swear revenge, to get the policeman – let’s call him Mahon – in revenge for his friend’s death. There was no point in going to the law, of course; justice would never be done; everyone knew that, especially in those years. So maybe the police thought they could beat an admission out of him, but he did not flinch from his story. That night he was not even in the city. He had been sent by his newspaper to Letterkenny twenty miles away, and he had several witnesses to prove it. The case was thrown out. People were surprised, even though they believed the man to be innocent. Innocence was no guarantee for a Catholic then. Nor is it now.