When fate led to Jean O’Connor’s son Iain narrowly missing being one of the victims of the Zebrugge ferry disaster, she was gripped with an overwhelming sense of relief. But only weeks later, Iain, 23, was killed by two IRA blast bombs when he went on duty to Northern Ireland in March 1987. Jean tells Aasma Day how 30 years on, her pain at losing her son is still as raw.
While on the plane to Northern Ireland to go on tour with the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, Private Iain O’Connor turned to his friend Tony Thompson and whispered: “I don’t think I will be coming back.”
Mum Jean O’Connor, now in her lates 70s, who lives in Fulwood, Preston, did not discover this fact until years after Iain’s death at the age of 23 and says when his friend recounted their conversation, it sent a chill through her bones.
Jean, who also has sons Peter and James and three grandchildren, says: “It is as if Iain had a premonition about his impending death.
“I can still picture Iain lying across my knee a few days before he went and saying: ‘I’m frightened mum.’
“It was one of the last conversations I had with him and I told him: ‘Don’t worry, you will be okay. They are killing each other, not soldiers.’
I felt like I had almost lost my son and that he had had a near-death experience. By missing that ferry, Iain had cheated death and I felt very lucky.
“As a mum, you try and reassure your children and I told Iain he would be all right as I hoped he would.”
Iain, who lived on Claughton-on Brock near Garstang with his family, dreamed of joining the Army from a young age.
Smiling as she remembers, Jean says: “Iain always wanted to join the Army from being a child. I think it was the uniform that appealed to him.
“He achieved his dream but only ended up being in the Army for a year. He joined at 22 and was killed at 23.
“When Iain said he wanted to join the Army, his grandmother - my mother - was concerned by the potential of Iain getting blown up but I convinced myself this wouldn’t happen as you always hope for the best.
“My mum actually died 10 days after Iain joined the Army and he had to return home for her funeral.”
Iain who went to the former St Cuthbert Mayne RC High School in Fulwood, joined the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment in January 1986 and completed his training and joined the battalion in Paderborn, West Germany.
It was while he was there he had his close encounter with the Zeebrugge ferry disaster when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized on March 6 1987 resulting in the deaths of 193 souls.
Iain was actually supposed to have been on that ferry to return home but ended up missing it by 15 minutes.
Jean explains: “Iain was in Paderborn with the regiment and had been at a briefing which over-ran so ended up missing his ferry.
“I remember watching the ferry turning over on the television and I cannot describe the feeling of horror I experienced.
“I knew Iain was supposed to have been coming home that day by ferry but I didn’t know for certain if he was on that ferry or not.
“Just watching it happening and knowing he might be on that ferry was terrible. I went through some frantic hours of not knowing if he was safe or not.
“Eventually, Iain rang from Calais to let me know he was safe. At that point, he didn’t know what had happened and just said something big had happened and the ferries had been cancelled.
“The relief I felt when I heard Iain’s voice was indescribable. It was wonderful to hear from him.
“I felt like I had almost lost my son and that he had had a near-death experience. By missing that ferry, Iain had cheated death and I felt very lucky.
“But unfortunately, his life was not saved for long as I lost him only weeks later.”
Iain flew out to Northern Ireland on the Friday and was killed just days later on the Monday. He and three other soldiers were travelling in a Land Rover following the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Iain was killed when two IRA blast bombs were dropped from a walkway in Divis Flats on to the Land Rover in which he was travelling.
One of the devices dropped through a hatch on the roof of the vehicle and Iain sustained fatal injuries to his side. One of the other soldiers was injured but Iain was the only one of the four squaddies to die.
Jean says: “We later found out a priest had come running out and was one of those who attempted to help the wounded.
“When he realised Iain was not going to make it, he gave him the Last Sacraments.”
Jean can still remember that harrowing day .
It was almost 30 years ago to the day on March 30 1987 - the day after Mothering Sunday - whenJean returned to the family home where they used to run an off licence downstairs and noticed the shop was closed.
Jean remembers: “I had been to the Lakes for a couple of days and I went upstairs and asked: ‘Why is the off licence not open?
“Then I noticed my then husband, my sons Peter and James and their two girlfriends and a priest and a colonel in the room.
“I asked them what had happened and they told me to sit down and then told me Iain had been killed.”
Jean remembers feeling utter disbelief and at first she was convinced there must be some sort of mistake. But then she saw the coverage on the television and suddenly realised it was all too real.
Jean says: “I don’t really remember much about the days and weeks following Iain’s death. There were plenty of tears and there still are today.
“Once I start talking about it, the tears start streaming even after all these years.
“When you lose a child, the pain never goes away. I am always wondering what sort of life Iain would have had and what sort of man he would have grown up to be. Would he be married? Would he have had children?
“I felt cheated and robbed of my son. Twenty-three years is no age. Iain had hardly become a man.
“At the time, I remember feeling relief Iain had not been married and had children at the time of his death.
“I thought at least there wasn’t a young wife and little children grieving for him as well.”
To add to Jean’s anguish, she later discovered Iain had been trying to get hold of her by telephone the day before his death to wish her a happy Mother’s Day.
In the end, Iain rang a place where Jean used to work and told them he wanted to wish her Happy Mother’s Day.
Jean admits: “That really hurts to know I didn’t manage to speak to him that final time.
“Whenever anyone asks me how many children I have, I always tell them I have three boys as otherwise it would as if Iain had not existed.”
Jean remembers feeling anger at the IRA following Iain’s death. She recalls: “I kept saying: ‘They’ve blown up a Roman Catholic with an Irish name.
“They say it is about religion but none of it is about religion. It is just terrorism.
“Iain’s death was just such a senseless killing and a waste of a life. It did not achieve anything. If it had been for some greater good, that would have been some consolation. But as it was, I lost my son for nothing.”
The IRA claimed Iain was the first victim of an “impact grenade” but security sources denied this.
A Sinn Fein worker from Divis Flats appeared in court charged with the killing. The court heard he had made his flat available to the IRA and had acted as a lookout .
In September 1998, the man who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the killing was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
Jean says: “I can remember someone asking if I wanted revenge against the IRA but I said: ‘What would be the point? It’s not going to bring Iain back and it would just cause another mother to have her heart broken.’”
Jean and husband Jim split up soon after Iain’s death and divorced in 1989. Jean says: “Things were bad and it was as if Iain’s death was the final thing and we decided to go our separate ways.”
Iain’s funeral was held at St Thomas’s Church in Claughton-on-Brock where he is buried.
Jean says before Iain went to Northern Ireland, he told his mum that once he had sorted his finances, he would send money to help the family out.
Jean, who has had many jobs including working for Forton Services as secretary the general manager, working for a rescue recovery company and volunteering at the Red Cross for 27 years, explains: “As a family, we were struggling financially at the time and Iain wanted to help.
“However, he was blown up before the first payment on his life insurance was made so we did not get a penny payout.
“We were not at war with Northern Ireland and it was classed as civil unrest so we were not entitled to a payout.
“We were still struggling after Iain’s death. I remember I had to go to the bank to get a loan so I could afford a black dress to wear to Iain’s funeral.”
Iain’s father Jim died in 1998 from septicaemia following a heart bypass. Jean says Iain’s death hit him hard. Iain’s death was also deeply upsetting for his two brothers.
Jean, now a self employed bookkeeper, says she felt numb after Iain’s death. She says: “Thirty years on, the pain is still there and it never goes away.
“Iain was funny and cheeky and we often bickered, but he was my son and I loved him.
“I miss Iain’s cheekiness and the way he was always so full of life.
“The worst times of year for me are in March - the anniversary of his death - and in September - his birthday.
“I feel what happened is a forgotten thing as Northern Ireland is on the back burner compared to places like Afghanistan and Iraq. They are supposedly at peace.
“But I think it is still going on and there are still factions.
“I just wish Iain was still here. Losing a child is the most terrible thing.
“It stays with you forever.”
JEAN’S THOUGHTS ON MARTIN MCGUINNESS
Speaking about the recent death of Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander turned Stormont deputy first minister who became Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process negotiations, Jean says nothing McGuiness did afterwards can wipe out the horrors he was responsible for.
Jean says: “I know you should not speak ill of the dead but he only went into politics for purely selfish reasons and did it for himself - no one else.
“I don’t feel that any good he did after can wipe out the atrocities that were carried out that affected not just my son and other military but also his own people.
“He caused a lot of heartache within the community in Northern Ireland.”