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'The fragility of life': priest who comforted the bereaved at Dunblane reflects on 65 years of ministry

by Donna Birrell
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Dunkeld Diocese/

The Catholic priest who comforted the bereaved after the Dunblane school shooting tragedy is marking 65 years since his ordination.

88-year-old Monsignor Basil O'Sullivan was among the first on the scene after Thomas Hamilton killed 16 primary school children and their teacher in 1996.

He still lives in Dunblane as parish priest of Holy Family, Dunkeld Diocese. He told Premier how his faith helped him find strength to cope and support the community in the aftermath of the tragedy:

"You just have to depend upon the Lord. There's nothing you can say to people who are bereaved, you just have to be their father. But I did find that the Lord gave me strength to cope with what I had to cope with, as I am sure he gave strength to the teachers and the emergency services. He gives us a strength to cope with what we have to cope with. But it was a nightmare."

Monsignor O'Sullivan attended the morning assembly at the school every day, but on March 13th 1996 he had been called to a meeting with the Bishop, so passed by outside just after the shooting had taken place.

Thomas Hamilton shot dead sixteen pupils, all of whom were just five or six years old, along with their teacher, 45-year-old Gwen Mayor. Fifteen other pupils and teachers were injured. It is the deadliest mass shooting in British history.

"The bishop told me there had been an awful tragedy in the town and told me to go straight back to the school. I found the school devastated, the parents, teachers, staff, devastated by what had happened. So I just did the best I could.

"The whole town went into trauma, everyone went to trauma, including myself. I suppose I had a kind of nervous breakdown - I didn't eat, sleep, I was drained.  I was weak, physically, spiritually, and mentally. You just couldn't eat, you couldn't sleep. But the Lord keeps going." 

Monsignor O'Sullivan says the whole community was overwhelmed by media from around the world and he was helped by parishioners who came to his home to help answer the phone and the front door, twenty-four hours a day:

"And you had no time to think what to say, you just had to depend on the Lord. And I was very conscious of being carried by the Lord."

It's twenty-five years since the tragedy, but Monsignor O'Sullivan told Premier its shadow never leaves the community:

"People move on and there are lots of people in Dunblane now who weren't here at the time of the shooting. So they only learned about it by word of mouth from people who were here. But I think it's always under the surface. And if we hear of another tragedy elsewhere, particularly in schools, it brings it all back. But you just do the best you can to cope. But I'm sure the poor parents who lost babies, they will live it with it every single day. 

"They dropped their children off at five to nine - and they were dead by forty-five minutes later. You'll never get over that. It is the fragility of life. Even if you're five years of age and your life is in front of you, you're still fragile.  We lost seventeen that morning, that awful morning, for a reason that nobody can understand. It was a meaningless tragedy."

In 2012, his experiences led to him supporting Father Bob Weiss in the United States after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in which twenty pupils and six teachers died.

An open-air Mass has been held to mark the Monsignor's 65 years as a priest and the Bishop of Dunkeld Diocese, Stephen Robson, says:

"He has always been there for his people, through thick and thin, serving with fidelity and love" and was always a comfort to "those who still mourn the terrible attack on Dunblane primary school in 1996 and to help heal the memories of that tragic day".

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