‘Lost Boys’ by Susan McKay and Willie Doherty. Tribute to Paul McCauley and Columba McVeigh

Image: ‘Paths from Irish Street’  ©Willie Doherty.

Read here Susan McKay’s poignant article of 2013 in tribute to Paul McCauley, who died on Saturday June 6 2015 as a result of catastrophic head injuries suffered in a sectarian attack in Derry in July 2006.

Extract from ‘Lost Boys’, a collaborative project by journalist Susan McKay and artist Willie Doherty. First published in Field Day Review 9 (2013). A special Derry City of Culture issue.

Paul—A state of limbo

The protesters were straggled across the main road, their union jacks drooping in the cold January rain of 2013. A big man in a black woolly hat, a hoodie and tracksuit looked like the leader. ‘He was eyeballing the car, anyway’, said Jim McCauley. He had already had to make a long diversion through Derry’s Waterside to avoid a bigger loyalist roadblock. He rolled down his window. The big man came alongside the car. ‘Hospital’, Jim said. The blockade was on the accident and emergency route to the Altnagelvin. Some of the other protesters, mostly young men, had turned to stare into the car. Hoods up, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets. Their faces were wrapped in football scarves, just the eyes visible.

The man stood back from the car for a moment. Jim rolled up the window, put his foot on the accelerator and eased the car forward. There were a few angry shouts, but Jim kept going. The car was soon through, the protest left behind. He signalled on the empty street and turned into the specialist acquired brain injury unit.

Jim was on his way to visit his son, Paul. It is a journey he makes every day. Paul has been in a coma since July 2006 when he was the subject of a murder bid by a sectarian gang. He was twenty-nine years old then.

The last photograph of Paul was taken just an hour or so before the attack. He is sitting in a summer garden, listening to someone talking. He is laughing. The photo is on the mantelpiece at his parents’ home in a quiet suburb overlooking the Foyle and just downriver of the nursing unit.

A civil servant, based in Belfast, Paul came home to Derry most weekends, mainly to see his seven-year-old daughter who was, says Paul’s mother, Cathy, ‘quite precious to him’. He was also a member of the Foyle Search and Rescue team that patrols the river.

On that last weekend he asked his father to drive him to a party. The weather was perfect, a rare day of sunshine in a summer of rain. Jim dropped Paul off at the house, high above the river on Chapel Road. ‘I remember looking in the rear view mirror as he walked up the drive’, he said. ‘I wondered would he look around and wave. But he didn’t.’

When it got dark, the friends moved from the garden to a field behind the house where they lit a bonfire. The field is on the slope of a small valley that rises steeply on the other side to the back of the Irish Street estate, which, despite its name, proclaims its Britishness with red, white and blue kerbstones and union jacks from every lamp post.

By about three in the morning, Paul and two others were tidying up beside the dying fire when a crowd of around fourteen people surged out of the darkness. Paul was felled by a blow from a heavy branch and methodically kicked with great force in the head. A friend ran for help. There was a police landrover nearby and an ambulance came quickly, but Paul’s injuries were catastrophic. He died, clinically, on his way to the nearby Altnagelvin Hospital, but was revived. After transfer and emergency surgery in Belfast, he was given two days to live.

The McCauleys are Catholic. The party was mixed, and included Polish friends. ‘But the house was Catholic’, said Jim. ‘It would have been seen to be Catholic.’ The owner of the house has built a wall around his garden since the attack. Jim brought Willie and me to the back of Irish Street to show us the place from which the attack was launched, but it was hard to find because new houses have been built and there is a high wooden fence blocking access to the laneway they used.

This was an attempt at sectarian murder, and the McCauleys were hurt by the silence of Protestant church leaders and unionist politicians in its aftermath. In 2009, Daryl Proctor went on trial for his part in the assault, Paul’s blood having been found on his boot. ‘The court case was surreal’, said Jim.  ‘Proctor was in the dock which was enclosed in glass. He was laughing and waving to his mother. It looked like he was on a fairground ride about to take off.’

Throughout the trial, he kept his sleeves rolled up, revealing a devil tattoo. A pre•sentence report said there was a high risk he would re-offend. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison, the only one of the gang to be tried to date. Proctor had been fifteen at the time he took part in the attack. He denied involvement until the last moment, when he admitted causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

Jim explored social media sites frequented by Proctor and his friends. He was shocked. On Bebo, he found slogans like ‘Do your bit to clean up the streets—kill a taig.’ There was a photo of a mural in the Fountain estate where Proctor lived, bordered by Derry’s famous walls: ‘Londonderry loyalists—still under siege’. A cartoon bull dog beats up a cat in a Celtic shirt, in front of a mural of King Billy on his white horse. There was adulation of loyalist mass killer Michael Stone. Proctor’s profile declared him to be ‘Scared of—fuck all’ and ‘happiest when—pissed, stoned, fightin or out with me m8s’. This boy was seven years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

Jim has been given information from a range of sources in the years since the attack. He had heard earlier that day the gang had been at a loyalist band parade in Newbuildings, a staunch village a few miles out from the city along the Foyle. A couple of the boys declined to take part in the attack because they had good shoes on and did not want to wreck them on the muddy ground. There were several girls, at least one still in her band uniform, who had no such qualms. He has heard that one of the gang was well connected within the criminal justice system. He has heard that a named high-profile public representative was approached for advice by some of the attackers after the police began their investigation. His advice was succinct: ‘Zip it, boys. Say nothing.’

‘We were unhappy with the first police investigation’, said Jim. ‘It descended into farce. We took it to the Policing Board and it is being reinvestigated. It bothers me that there is a murder gang roaming the streets’, he said. Cathy said she often wonders about Paul’s glasses: ‘They must be somewhere in that big wild garden but they were never found.’

Paul McCauley did not die. He is not listed as a casualty of the conflict. He remains in a minimal state of consciousness, though the doctors say his life expectancy can now only be a few more years. His civil service pension pays for his nursing, but three times Jim has had to fill out a lengthy form sent by the Department of Health and Social Services to assess his son’s suitability for work. ‘I have to write that he is in a persistent vegetative state’, he says.

The week after Jim’s encounter with the loyalist protests on his way to visit Paul, the City of Culture’s big opening event, the ‘Sons and Daughters’ concert, was held in the marquee at Ebrington, on the same main road. Outside the marquee, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers held back loyalist protesters apparently intent upon storming it. Their leaders claim that their culture has been destroyed. One of those holding a union jack at the front of the protest was a close relation of Daryl Proctor. The banner the protesters carried read: ‘The Innocent Victims of Ulster Cry Out for Justice’.

The McCauleys visit their son every day. They talk to him, read aloud from books he used to love, or play him CDs. They admit that they do not know where Paul is. ‘We can’t grieve, because he is not gone’, says Cathy. ‘But he isn’t really here, either.’ ‘He gets seizures’, says Jim. ‘Sometimes when he is in pain you just want him to die in your arms. But then you think, is that just for us as his family? There is a finality about death. This is a state of limbo.’

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