Dunblane anniversary: 'They are looking for their children back, but that can’t happen'

It is a potent symbol of light triumphing over darkness, with 16 small doves representing each child who was lost.

In ordinary times, the stained glass memorial to the young lives cut short by the Dunblane massacre is a source of comfort. In the midst of a pandemic, its power has assumed an even greater significance.

Today, Dunblane will remember those children as it has always done. But this time around, it will do so differently, with parishioners and members of the community logging online to mark the 25th anniversary of the atrocity.

For three hours this morning, the grand windows, which chart the doves’ journey from evil and suffering to resurrection and light, will be the focus of a live stream aired on the Church of the Holy Family’s website.

The live footage is designed to allow people a chance to pray and reflect on the passing of a quarter of a century since the worst mass shooting in UK history, before joining an online anniversary Mass later in the day.

Remembrances of that morning on 13 March 1996 have been an annual fixture in Dunblane over the past quarter century. Only five years ago, the 20th anniversary Mass drew nearly 200 people, including families of those who were killed, to the church in the town’s Clarendon Place.

This year, the pews may be empty, but there was never any doubt that the annual service would not go ahead.

“The parents and family members who have come to the anniversary Masses always seemed to appreciate it,” explained Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan. “Coming to church is a way for them to mark the occasion - for some of them, not everyone, of course - but that can’t happen this year.”

Monsignor Basil O'Sullivan said today's anniversary was a "sombre occasion" for Dunblane. Picture: Michael Gillen

Even though the restrictions on worship imposed by a pandemic mean that this year’s anniversary will be different, the presence of Msgr O’Sullivan will bring continuity and, for so many, comfort.

Now aged 88, he has been the parish priest in Dunblane for 33 years. He was among those members of the community who raced to the school after 16 children aged five and six, and their teacher, Gwen Mayor, were killed.

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In the days that followed, he helped identify some of those who had been killed, while also consoling families burdened by unimaginable grief. He went on to conduct the funeral services for some of those children who were killed.

The Dunblane memorial window in the Church of the Holy Family. Picture: Michael Gillen

“I was well established in Dunblane when it happened, which was a great blessing. I knew the children, and I knew the parents,” Msgr O’Sullivan recalled. “It helped being part of the community and knowing these people and their babies, their children.”

But that intimacy with a community torn apart came at a personal price. Msgr O’Sullivan said that for a few years afterwards, the sight of a young child would reduce him to tears. Even now, he struggles to put into words the impact the tragedy had on his own life.

“I find that hard to answer,” he said. “It made me think much more about the fragility of life, how precious life is, and to be grateful for it.

“The media went away after such a horrendous event, but the broken hearts of the parents left behind were still there. They don’t talk about the painful memory of losing a child, but those memories will always be there.”

That burden is something he has shared over the years, helping others in faraway communities who have been left counting the cost of gun violence.

When 20 children and six adults were killed after a gunman opened fire on a school in the Connecticut village of Sandy Hook, Msgr O’Sullivan wrote to his counterpart, Monsignor Bob Weiss, on the advice of Pam Ross, one of the Dunblane parents.

The two men began corresponding regularly, and to mark the the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook killings, both held a joint Mass. Msgr O’Sullivan has since gone on to make contact with other communities in Utah and Florida who have been impacted by school shootings.

For the moment, however, his focus is on today’s Mass. The significance of the 25th anniversary is acutely felt, but the date is significant no matter the year.

“It is always a sombre occasion,” he said. “Those of us who were there at the time find 13 March to be a tense day, a sombre day. The fact this is the 25th anniversary is significant because of the number, but every anniversary is a time to remember what happened and those who were lost.

“It’s an event you’re always aware of, and you’re always tensed up about it. Twenty five years ago, it was Mother’s Day the Sunday after the shooting, the same as it is this year, so it was a very poignant occasion at that particular time, as you can imagine - not only for the bereaved parents, but for every mother in the country who were aware of the fragility of their children and how precious life is.

“This time, the children would have been around 30 years of age and would have been having babies of their own. But it’s not to be.”

With places of worship set to open ahead of Easter, the Monsignor O’Sullivan will soon welcome back his flock, and just as he has done for the past three decades, offer them comfort. It will mean a great deal for the community, especially those families who suffered the greatest of losses.

"You can only be there to love them and be their father,” Msgr O’Sullivan added. “Of course, they are looking for their children back, but that can’t happen. You can only do the best you can, and hope you are of some use to them.”

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