Marie Breen-Smyth the Associated Dean International at the University of Surrey talks to Paul Gallagher about his injury and it affected his life and future and how he has came to terms with it.
On the 6th January 1994 Paul and his family were about to sit down to dinner in their home in Lenadoon, West Belfast when the UFF entered their house claiming to be the IRA. After a tense hour the men left but not before opening fire. Paul was 21 years old.
“I woke up a couple of days later in intensive care with a tube down my neck to help me breath not knowing that I was paralysed. You couldn’t really have thought of anything because you were full of that much morphine. It took about a week later before the doctors came in and said I was paralysed. That was a big shock.”
Paul also had his femur shattered, lost his spleen and the full functioning of his lungs. The injury to his spleen resulted in the most minor of infections having serious implications for his health and as a result he has been on penicillin everyday since the shooting.
“My lower body would always be very sensitive it would always feel as though it’s burning. I would explain it like lava flowing through you. Some days it’s bad and some days it’s worse but it’s always that crushing sort of burning feeling.”
Although Paul’s life was severely impacted he recognises that it presented his family with extra responsibilities. Recounting that tragic night Paul says, “It was far harder for them. I was oblivious to everything for a few weeks with the medication and morphine. But they had to live it, watching me…. basically dying.”
“The trauma was just something that wasn’t really talked about, we just helped each other along. There was no real help from the government and the doctors just fill you with anti depressants and say get on with it.”
Paul talks about coming to terms with his disability. “Most of them (friends) were pretty dead on and they didn’t see me any different so I didn’t see myself any different. I don’t really see myself as being disabled it’s just something to get on with. Whenever I first got out of hospital I was dragged off to Tenerife with 20 friends.”
The perpetrators were never brought to justice. The political developments in Northern Ireland and the emergence of the Good Friday Agreement changed Paul’s perception of finding justice, “if there’s peace and it’s not going to happen to anyone else, we’ll move on from it. We didn’t really expect to get anything from the old RUC then.”
In fact some years after the attack, Paul and his family discovered that one of his attackers was shot and killed just across the road in the Suffolk Estate, “Whether or not it’s justice who knows? It’s not for me to say. Maybe some people felt it was but it didn’t change me or my daily life the next day just because somebody else had been killed.”
Paul’s injuries meant that he had to resign from work as a civil servant. His father and the main provider for the family also left his as he tried to come to terms with what had happened. His mother put her career plans on hold to care for Paul. On the compensation that he and his family received Paul says, “I just left it to the lawyers, it took about 10 years before I received compensation. It was pretty long and drawn out.”
“A few pound came in with the compensation but it’s not going to change anything for me. I’d rather give the money back and get my legs back but, okay it’s there, we’ll use it to buy wheelchairs, different disabled aids and try to live a relatively comfortable life.”
Paul’s experiences inspired him to enrol in Queens University to study Psychological Trauma Studies. “I’ve come out of it myself, a bit more philosophical and just accept it for what it is. There are a lot of people that are really still messed up by what happened to them, they just can’t accept it.”
Paul supports the Wave Trauma Group and his involvement with this group has seen him go on to become Chairperson of the Victims and Survivors Group Trust. On the importance of WAVE, Paul says, “You’re meeting other people who have been through the same sort of thing as you. You can open up as well, it’s a safe enough place to have that and people understand the sort of things you went through. Plus it’s good to listen too.”
This interview was supported by the WAVE Trauma Centre, University of Surrey and the Community Relations Council.