Omagh bomb victim’s mother: I vowed never to return to Ireland – but I will for James

James Barker, 12, was killed in the 1998 Omagh bomb
James Barker, 12, was killed in the 1998 Omagh bomb

A woman whose 12-year-old son died a brutal death in the Omagh bombing will this weekend come back to the land she vowed never to return to – to dedicate a patch in a memorial quilt in his name.

James Barker was one of 29 people who died in the RIRA bomb which devastated Omagh in 1998 – the biggest single atrocity in the Troubles.

Donna Maria Barker will attend a memorial service in Fivemiletown on Sunday

Donna Maria Barker will attend a memorial service in Fivemiletown on Sunday

This Sunday his mother, Donna Maria Barker, will travel to Fivemiletown Methodist Church for South East Fermanagh Foundation’s annual service, the theme of which this year is ‘Children of the Troubles’. A new memorial quilt will be dedicated, featuring a patch in James’ memory.

“He had a kind heart,” said Donna Maria. “I think he was one in a million.”

In the year before he died they were walking through Londonderry when he picked up a Coke can and she told him to put it down. “And he turned round to me and he said, ‘Mummy, if I don’t pick this Coke can up a little hedgehog could come along and put its snout in the opening because it smells sweet, and it could damage itself’. And I looked at him and I just thought – he had taken me aback by that. He was 11.”

After he died an old farmer whom James used to walk down to the beach also came into their Buncrana home to pay tribute.

The scene of devastation in Omagh town centre after the 1998 bomb attack

The scene of devastation in Omagh town centre after the 1998 bomb attack

“This old farmer would never talk to anybody, but he said: ‘This little boy used to bring the best out in me’. James would ask him questions about his life, how long he had been here and so forth. ‘Your son was a very kind and loving little boy,’ he said. After the bomb he said he used to walk past the house and look in, and it brought a tear to his eye.”

On another occasion James won all his races on sports day but then went and joined a “chubby little boy” to do the three-legged race. He explained to his mother why he had done it: ‘Mummy, nobody wanted to do the three-legged-race with this little boy because he was quite chubby. Why shouldn’t I?’.

“And they came in last together, but that was James for you.”

She also recounted how James had given two parents a tour of his school, Foyle and Londonderry College, when they were thinking of sending their own son there. They later wrote an “amazing” letter paying tribute to his character.

Donna Maria was born and reared in Londonderry but met her ex-husband Victor while singing at a wedding in Surrey. She later moved back to Buncrana to give her children the “dream” childhood she had enjoyed there.

However, the Omagh bombing stole her dream and she returned to Surrey, vowing never to return. This weekend she breaks that vow.

“It will be painful to come back. Yes, very painful. But it is for James, isn’t it?”

She added: “The most horrific thing that I had to do was go and view James’ body.

“I remember him being covered with a green blanket and a small white handkerchief on his face. And when they took that away his eyes were wide open and I remember not realising how beautiful his eyes were – emerald green eyes – that sticks with me. He always had those dancing smiling eyes.”

James had been on a bus tour with Spanish friends and was standing right beside the bomb when it exploded. His friend Fernando was killed instantly but James landed on a roof three floors above the ground. He survived for three hours while doctors pumped 32 pints of blood into his failing body.

Her grief is still like a heavy mantle, despite having three other children, Estella, Oliver-Tristen and Erin-Esther.

“You can live every day. I work with children but when you come home and close that door, that is when the memories start. It could be a piece of music or looking at his picture, and all I have got is memories of James.

“My life is gone ... I can’t go forward. He was my son, I carried him for nine months.”