Love, Hate and Beyond. Emotions, Culture and Practice. When analysing grief in an ethnographic fashion it can be quite difficult as it is such a sensitive issue. My partner and myself worked together to devise a project that could target the issue of grief on a wider scale in Northern Ireland. We decided to address the case of the Omagh bombing in 1998 that killed 31 people (two of those being unborn children). This would allow us to look at personal grief but also enable us to concentrate on the grieving process of a community.
On a normal Saturday afternoon at 3:10pm, in the small town of Omagh in Northern Ireland, a 500Ib car bomb exploded on the Market Street. This news reached the whole world as the grief of a small town was presented on every news channel and in every newspaper. Northern Ireland is a place that is used to dealing with tragedy as nearly 4,000 people have been killed as a result of the troubles. The bomb resulted in destroying many people’s lives, the community had to pull together to combat what one priest there described as, “good over evil”.
We both interviewed someone from Omagh. Making sure that it was a male and a female in a similar age group. We also made sure that one was Protestant and one was Catholic to gain a fair overview of the situation.
Methodology and Ethics
The technique that I used to research was an in formal interview with a 23-year
Old girl from Omagh, who was there at the time of the bombing. She herself was a Roman Catholic. The interviewing process is one of the most common ways of obtaining information for the anthropologist. It could be seen, as being very flexible as there are set guidelines on how one must interview. However there are different types of questions that can be used according to the sensitivity of the subject that is being addressed. During my interview I wanted to let the conversation flow easily so I asked what are known as semi- structured questions. This allows the person being interviewed to talk away about the subject, “The interviewer responds using prompts, probes and follow up questions to get the interviewee to clarify or expand on the answers”1.
The prompts I used throughout the interview allowed her to say what she wanted to say and was a sensitive approach due to the subject in hand. “Prompting is an art that has to be cultivated, and a certain amount of effort must initially be put into pump-priming (that is, encouraging informants to speak freely and informatively on subjects that interest you)”2. I could see that during the interview she could start talking about something that was upsetting her but then we were able to move on to another aspect of the question.
Drever explains that semi-structured interviews allow one to, gather factual information, collect statements of their preferences and opinions explore in some depth, their experiences. I just tried t o get my interviewee to explain the events in chronological order, getting her to tell me how she felt at all times putting the emphasis on grief and community. As my interviewee was a female friend I think that allowed her to open up to me when she was talking about her experience at two of the victim’s wakes. This method of asking questions allowed me to gain high quality information for my research project, I could listen carefully to what she was saying and explore her individual viewpoints.
The essential aim to ethnography is to produce knowledge, ‘central to researching the truth: the aim should be to produce accounts of the social phenomena’ (Paul Atkinson). When analysing an issue such as the emotion of grief one has to be careful that their pursuit of knowledge does not become offensive to anyone involved. There seems to be five main factors when dealing with the ethics of the interviewing process. 1, Informed consent, the interviewee should know exactly why they are being interviewed and give their “unconstrained consent”3, it could be seen as being devious or unfair if this is not the case. It seems only fair when addressing the subject of grief to be truthfull.2, Harm, is something that can occur to those being researched if the anthropologists are not careful.
For example an interviewee may feel anxious about the publication of the results of an interview if they have said anything controversial. Sensitive issues need careful consideration, as the subject can be harrowing for the interviewee. Finch expresses her feelings on harm and explains that it is difficult even for feminists “to devise ways of ensuring that information given so readily in interviews will not be used ultimately against the collective interests of women’ (1984:83). 3, Exploitation, can occur during a research study as people do not appreciate being used as ‘fodder for research’, Beyon (1983).
People do not appreciate giving time and effort to take part in research and not be able to get anything out of it, once their job has been done some interviewees can be cast aside. People however do enjoy helping others for a good reason. As my interviewee was a personal friend she was more than happy to talk to me and felt it had helped once again to get some thoughts out in to the open. 4, Consequences for future research, are an important issue as it allows research to carry over years developing our knowledge and understanding. If an anthropologist were to do something so objectionable that it would stop future research then “ethnographic research would become virtually impossible” (Fred Davis). The researcher has a duty to everyone else not to ‘spoil the field’.
Omagh bombing interview with Tracey Donally
Tracey first describes where she was at the time of the bombing. “I was working in a shop in Omagh, about a 1/4 of a mile away from where the explosion actually took place. When we first heard the loud bang, we all thought that it was a controlled explosion. It was quite a bit later when we realised what had happened, the phone lines in Omagh had gone down and nobody really knew what was going on. News soon spread that it was a bomb near the courthouse; at this point the number of people that had died was still unclear. Omagh was just a small town nobody expected this, panic hit everyone straight away, my brother was in the town as well as my boyfriend, thankfully they were fine, however, I knew that someone I knew would be hurt as it is such a small community.”
Then we move on to who she knew that was killed and the wakes and the funerals of these people. ” It was a couple of days later that the whole death toll was clear, my aunt was a nurse in the hospital and I kept hearing names of my friends that were coming in to the hospital in critical conditions. Samantha McFarland was my friend she had died in the bombing, there was also Lorraine Wilson, Elizabeth Rush and my friends mother Philomena Skelton. I attended two wakes and two funerals, one Church of Ireland and one Roman Catholic.
The feeling around Omagh at this time was unbelievable only people that were there or a part of the community will ever understand. Queues of people lined up outside the wake houses to pay respects to the dead and offer their condolences to the family. I stood there and waited in silence, everyone was suffering terrible grief. When I went into Samantha’s wake room I didn’t really know what to say to her mother or her closest friend who were there with the body, (an open coffin). I offered my sympathy, and her mother was in pure shock sat there saying to people, ‘oh Samantha used to talk about you’, or, ‘I remember you being in Samantha’s class at school’. The family and friends were all stood outside the wake room, some silent, some regaling stories of Samantha and discussing what had actually happened during the bombing. In true Irish fashion the women ran around with tea and sandwiches for everyone there.
I only stayed there for a couple of hours as the house was so full of people, however close friends and family would sit up all night with the body, taking it in turns to try and get some sleep or just rest themselves at least. At Philomena’s wake the atmosphere was very much the same, I was there to show my friend support at this time when her Mummy had just died. As this family were Catholic the Priest came round to the wake whilst I was there and everyone inside or standing around the outside of the house said the Rosary, this would happen at several different times throughout the night, (helping the soul of the body reach Heaven).
During this report it has become apparent that death has the ability to release the most powerful emotions amongst people that is why it is important to discuss the rituals that follow, ‘There are many emotional dimensions to ritual’4. In this part of the interview Tracey explained about how she attended the waking of two of the victim’s bodies. Waking the body is a traditional ritual that occurs all over Ireland. It involves all of the surrounding community. The wake approaches death head on. The wake room is where the body is kept, usually in an open coffin, surrounded by candles and maybe flowers.
Any family or friends who wish to come to the house do so to pray for the dead, it is also a great display of support for the grieving family. It helps many grieving family members as they have something to concentrate their grief on. People will stay up all night the body is never left alone. Outside the wake room win the rest of the house is where people will usually run around helping when thy can, women make gallons of tea and feed everyone. People can sit and think about the person they have lost in silence, or talk to many other people that knew them. Talking about the dead helps people to grieve for the dead.
During my time researching this report, my partner’s cousin died. As an English girl I had never experienced a wake, which is common practice over here. I thought it was a good way of dealing with death and grief as there were always many chances to talk and reflect with others. Having the body in the house was also a positive thing as the family were not ready to say goodbye suddenly they wanted to look at him, remember him and pray for him, although they were praying for his soul to go to heaven (saying the rosary several times, led by the priest or leading family members) throughout the wake the body was of great importance also.
When looking at other death rituals and grieving processes, the Dagura people in Africa have some thing similar to a wake. The women of the village are allowed to grieve first however this must be in silence. It is this way until the men have found a ‘sacred space’ in which they announce the death and invite the whole village to come and grieve. The men are forbidden to show any signs of grief until this ritual space is created. The journey of the soul is of great importance after death “The invoking of the spirits is partly designed to elicit enough grief from the mourners, to allow the dead person to move into the world of the ancestors. The Dagura believe that the soul’s journey into the next world is dependant in some ways upon the grief expressed by the mourners.” Tom Golden5.
This does relate to the Catholic waking practice of saying the Rosary and other prayers to help the soul enter the kingdom of heaven, (the soul could be in a place called Purgatory where it would have to spend some time before moving on into Heaven, only saints go straight to Heaven). This gives both these groups of people a purpose for their grief. Grief is a state where one may not know what to do with themselves some may even go off the rails. Dagura people keep two women elders with the body at all times collecting the grief from the rest of the community around them that come to visit. This displays an example of coping behaviour within both of these societies. As both cultures appreciate the rebirth of the soul, one is left to think about thee relationship of the biological and the social collectivity. “Bloch and Parry hold a particular view of ritual, seeing it basically as a form of social control. One aspect of this is that society actively shapes the emotions of its members through ritual”6.
The funerals of these two people were on different days, both had the Guard of honour before they reached the church. I have never experienced such a feeling of pure sadness amongst so many people in all my life. They were both very hard days. At both, the churches were so packed I had to stand outside. I could hear the service through the speakers outside, I could also hear horrible cries of agony from inside the church of close family. This was the most painful thing for me, openly hearing and seeing the physical grief of the people. Both bodies were buried in Omagh in the different graveyards of the different churches. Although it was the last goodbye to these two women it was only the start of the grieving process for their family and friends”.
I asked what the communities did do then to help the families and what they did to display their sorrow to the rest of the watching world. “One week later at exactly the same time as the bomb had happened there was a memorial service in Omagh town. We stood there in complete silence as a mark of respect. Thousands of people came, including politicians from all the Northern Irish parties, the Irish Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and the Northern Irish secretary at the time Mo Mowlam. Prayers were said, different leaders stood up and spoke about how evil and wrong the bombing was. It was comforting to have outside support at this time, however it was still too painful for some of the victims family members to attend, their own personal grief and suffering was still too hard to cope with at this time.
The whole community supported the families of those directly affected, it really brought the whole community together as everyone in Omagh was grieving for someone they has lost, it was such a close community, everyone knows or knows of nearly everyone there. The police and the army were major helpers after the bomb erupted this brought the community closer as there had always been a lack of trust between the Catholic community and these two organisations. Catholics and Protestants of all denominations came together to rebuild Omagh as both sides were suffering greatly. 31 people died both Catholic and Protestant, we all mourned together”.
My aim during this research was to find out how the community dealt with such a tragic event. It is apparent that there was a sense of mass grief, not just the grief of family and friends but also people from surrounding areas. Irish people place a big emphasis on family and community. The Omagh bombing brought the community of Omagh together in a collective disgust at what had happened as well as a collective grief. Memorial services were organised so the community could demonstrate their solidarity. Both interviewees explain about the continuous memorial services that occurred after the bombing. Everyone showed their solidarity and deep sadness at the services it even provoked visitors from around the world to come.
“Sharing affects provide relief. Grief resolution through collective mourning / healing creates positive group identity. Commitment to community” Meline Ottenbacher7. There has also been a memorial garden created for anyone to come and reflect, pray, or just to be in a quiet place. Catherine Sheehy wrote about the importance of a place like the memorial garden in Omagh. Talking about the grief after September the 11th she states, “When loss is collective, grief requires public support. People need space to grieve and often create physical sites to recognise collective grief8.
I wanted to try and find out if any blame for the disaster and loss of life was placed in Omagh. “Yes, there was blame. It was revealed that certain people within Omagh were involved in a terrorist organisation called, ’32 County Sovran’, a wing of the Real I.R.A. One man called Mackey was given a hard time by the rest of the town, as it was known that he was involved. The truth and justice is still to be revealed yet as the case is still in court, six years later. People blamed themselves for the members of their family dying, saying things like, ‘I should have gone into town myself now they wouldn’t be dead’.”
Blame is an issue that would play on some people’s minds. Allowing themselves to figure out why it happened. Having someone of something to blame gives them something to focus their instant anger on.
What about people in Omagh now how are they all this time later? “Some are emotionally scared for life. It is still hard to talk about in front of some people who took it very badly. I know people that still have to go to therapy and see councillors to cope with their grief. Even now the family and friends have yearly anniversaries for those that died and there is a group memorial service that the whole town attends yearly. Together the people of the town have created a memorial garden in Omagh to always remember the lives lost on that horrible day.
It’s a quiet place where anyone can just go and sit and think and pray. People in Omagh will always remember as long as they live, some will always feel the pain. Something nobody else can understand if they did not go through this with us. It is completely different from when you watch it on the telly and think that will never be you. It really makes you realise your own mortality”.
Whilst researching this case I spoke to Johanna Thompson, a barrister in Northern Ireland who has dealt with some of the Omagh bomb law suits. Many of those people that had survived the bombing suffered from Post Traumatic Stress. This would not allow them to sleep and would cause them to keep reliving the events. Many would feel a great sense of guilt that they were able to claim compensation when others had died. This would make them dumb down their injuries. “Many people have suffered a great psychological trauma, grief plays a large part in this. It could take a very long time for some of these people to go back to living anything nearly like their old lives”9.
Bloch and Parry stress the importance of the “Individual’s identification with society” and of the “relationship between the biological individual and the social collectivity”. They see ritual as a method of social control. However it seems to be that the ritual is a great demonstration of the emotion, and can indeed help people throughout the grieving process. Grief can be a very private thing however this does not always help those that are suffering. Having something to focus ones grief on can stop people from going into complete emotional turmoil.
The community in Omagh strived to help everyone whose lives had been affected. They showed great solidarity and unity. It can be seen that sharing the pain can definitely provide some kind of relief. Dr Sheila Clark, from the University of Adelaide states that, “Without appropriate support, grief and trauma can lead to depression or lead to an increase in illness”.
I have learnt a great deal about interview techniques. If I could improve on this piece of work I would have interviewed more people using different techniques. The triangulation that occurred during this research report was helpful. I would also like to thank my partner for working with me on this project I think that we came up with some good ideas together it was enjoyable.

Love, Hate and Beyond. Emotions, Culture and Practice