Page last updated at 04:34 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

'The children had terrible nightmares'

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Prison officer Patrick Kerr was one of more than 3,000 people killed during the Troubles that affected Northern Ireland between 1969 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. On Wednesday the Eames Bradley Report will include plans for dealing with the legacy of these deaths.

The clocks in Moira Kerr's home in Armagh city might as well have stopped on 17 February 1985.

Gregory Kerr talks about seeing his father killed by the IRA

That morning her husband Patrick, a prison officer, was gunned down by two IRA men as he attended Mass in the city's cathedral with the two younger of his three children.

It was his 37th birthday.

On that fateful Sunday morning Mrs Kerr had gone to a family funeral across the border in the Irish Republic, which her husband was unable to attend because of his job and the security implications.

His son Gregory, who was seven at the time, takes up the story: "When we came out of the cathedral I was holding my dad's hand and my little sister, Kristin, was holding his other hand.

"He walked up to the car and these two men must have been hiding behind a statue. They came out and shot him and then ran off."

Gregory remembers being "hysterical" and "crying his eyes out" as he was shepherded inside the cathedral by his grandmother.

Can anyone conceive of a greater crime than to murder a man in front of his family as he was coming from worshipping God?
Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich

His father had died almost instantly and a priest read the last rites.

The Roman Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, who was only a few yards away in his residence at the time, said: "Can anyone conceive of a greater crime than to murder a man in front of his family as he was coming from worshipping God?"

Gregory says of his father: "I remember him being a jolly, friendly giant. He was a big, friendly, bubbly person. When he was off work he'd always be playing with me, wrestling, stuff."

Under threat

Mrs Kerr says that although she knew her husband, as a senior officer at the Maze prison, was under threat, the shock of his death knocked her for six.

"If it hadn't been for my mother and my brother and sister I don't know what we would have done," she says.

Mrs Kerr says his death devastated the whole family and she is convinced her husband's murder contributed to the death of his mother and father shortly after.

Patrick Kerr was one of 29 prison officers killed during the Troubles.

He had wanted to join the air force, but he was turned down because he was colour blind.

Instead he joined the prison service. It was 1968 and the Troubles had not yet erupted.

Moira Kerr at her home in Armagh
At the time you kept thinking the Troubles would be over soon
Moira Kerr

He married Moira in 1971.

She remembers: "At the time you kept thinking the Troubles would be over soon. It was horrendous, but you didn't think it would go on as long as it did."

After working in Crumlin Road and Armagh jails, Mr Kerr was transferred to the Maze prison and was a principal officer at the time of his death, although as a Catholic he was very much in the minority.

He rarely told his wife much about work, not wanting to worry her.

The IRA hunger strikes came and went, there was frequent violence on both the republican and loyalist H-blocks and a number of his colleagues were shot dead or killed by bombs outside of work.

Mrs Kerr remembers what it was like: "Every day you had to check under the car to make sure there wasn't a bomb under it. But you didn't want to alert the neighbours so you'd pretend to drop your keys and then bend down.

"He would ring from work to let me know he had arrived safely and would call just before he was about to leave so I would know when to expect him," she says.

Inside the Maze prison
Prison officers at the Maze lived under constant threat of death
After his death she says she threw everything into looking after their children - Deirdre, now 33, Gregory, 30, and Kristin, 28.

All were very young at the time and the loss of their father affected them enormously.

"Kristin had the most terrible nightmares, but being so young it perhaps didn't affect her as badly as the other two in the long term," says Mrs Kerr.

"Deirdre grew up overnight - from being a nine-year-old girl to being almost like the dad [of the family]," she adds.

She says: "I tried to keep them as occupied as I could - with piano, riding lessons, Scouts, anything to keep them busy and fill the void as best they could."

When Deirdre got married she chose to tie the knot in Spain rather than be wed in the cathedral, which she will forever link to her father's murder.

Gregory points at a photograph on the wall - the family attending a ceremony in 2002 when their father was posthumously awarded the Northern Ireland Prison Service Medal - and adds: "That year I went to see Armagh in the All-Ireland [Gaelic football] final. We won and I remember thinking how Dad would have loved to have been there."

'Not easy'

Asked about how he feels about the men who shot his father, and the possibility of them coming forward to a "truth commission", he says: "It's not going to bring my father back. Justice is not going to be done. They would be out [of prison] in no time at all."

Holding up his fingers in a pinching motion, he adds: "If the gunmen said sorry it would make this much difference. It might not be easy to forgive and forget."

Gregory Kerr with picture of his father
Gregory Kerr was seven years old when he was his father killed

Mrs Kerr agrees: "I have always said that if police came to me and said, 'We know who killed your husband,' I would say, 'I don't want to know'."

She adds she would not want to knowingly bump into one of her husband's killers on the street.

Mrs Kerr is angry at the idea, leaked from the Eames Bradley Report, that the families of all those who died in the Troubles, including those of paramilitaries killed during active service, would receive the same 12,000.

She says: "The idea that you can equate the perpetrator with the victim is absolutely disgraceful, abominable."

She adds: "I just hope Reverend Eames and Mr Bradley recognise the need to get trauma counselling. There are so many people in need of it and they are still not getting enough support."

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