For decades Sara-Louise Martin lived with loss and battled with unforgiveness related to her father’s death. Then, in the summer of 2022, she was faced with a challenging opportunity to step into freedom and healing
“That’s a lovely accent,” came the voice from behind me in the queue, in a Northern Irish lilt. I turned slowly, drawn to the familiarity while also bracing for the inevitable safety assessment my mind would do. Accents often bring instant connection – an indication that you’re from the same small corner of earth – but when I hear another Northern Irish accent, I’m subconsciously looking for data points, wondering how the encounter will progress.
I was faced with a slightly older gentleman, stocky, with twinkly blue eyes.
“What’s the craic?” he said.
“Oh hi, nice to meet you. Where are you from?” I needed to place him, to have a sense of where this conversation was going.
He named a housing estate I was familiar with, the thought of which ordinarily would have made my heart beat a little faster. He told me he’d left over 20 years ago.
“Did you leave or have to leave?” Something inside prompted me to ask.
“I had to leave.”
The next question was the punchiest I’ve ever landed.
“Were you in the IRA?”
“Yes, I was.”
On 4 November 1984 my dad was killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). I was 13 months old. My mum was six weeks pregnant with my brother.
My dad was the youngest serving police officer to reach the rank of inspector in Northern Ireland. On the day of the tragedy he was at a training course at the University of Ulster, well known for their IRA sympathies. A bomb had been planted in the ceiling of the lecture room; it went undetected by those carrying out the sweep of the room at the start of the lecture (that bomb sweeps took place so regularly says a lot about the level of risk).
At 11am the bomb detonated. My dad was sitting directly below it.
The force took the wall off one side of the lecture hall. Many were left with life-changing injuries. The lecturer later miscarried her baby. Three men lost their lives. My dad was one of them.
I have grown up knowing loss; it’s been like an unwelcome companion occupying a space that should have been my dad’s. His absence is such an integral part of my story, that for decades it was impossible to imagine life without loss. My fatherlessness was part of me.
I left Northern Ireland at 18, as soon as I’d been able to
Somehow my mum, in her grace-filled, peace-exuding way, found the energy and creativity to pave a childhood for me and my brother that was happy and secure. I could see the Holy Spirit at work in my mum’s life. She said that as soon as she heard that dad had died – those unutterable, devastating words – God filled her with a peace that passed all understanding. She lived out that peace, and developed a really intimate faith and prayer life. She even prayed that IRA members would encounter God; that his love and truth would break through into their lives. I would listen to these long prayers and punctuate them with my honest “Amen” (if I hadn’t fallen asleep!), but in time I began to wrestle with it all.
My once unquestioning, childlike faith in God became complicated. Not having an earthly father, I found relating to God as father difficult and unnatural. I kept him at a distance, struggling to believe that he was good and wanted good things for me.
In 2012, the investigation into my dad’s death was re-opened. It was rooted in an overwhelming responsibility towards a quest for justice. I was 30 at the time, living in London, working in marketing and communications. I had left Northern Ireland at 18, as soon as I’d been able to. My relationship with my homeland was complicated, and intricately tied up in my father’s death. The re-opening of the case was the start of an internal unravelling for me.
It was horrendous to relive the events I’d been too young to even be aware of at the time. The details and attitudes surrounding them were hard to stomach. “Police taught a lesson,” read one headline in a Republican newspaper at the time – a hideous pun referencing the university venue of the attack. Those investigating thought they knew who had planted the bomb, but there wasn’t enough forensic evidence for a conviction. I took all this in, and slowly fell apart.
Enter God into my story – centre stage. My brokenness was the beginning of my healing; the beginning of my true discovery of him, his character and heart for me, and simultaneously the discovery of myself. But these journeys can be painfully slow, and I came to a point last summer when I knew I needed a breakthrough. As I packed my bag ready to head off to a Christian music festival, I found my heart crying out to God for a life-changing encounter. While knowing that God often works slowly, I was also assured that he has another speed; I needed that sudden moment of transformation.
So, back to that queue. I’d landed my punchy question, and was standing in front of this ex-IRA member…but my body was relaxed. I felt surprisingly calm, showing none of the usual stress responses. I was in no doubt that this was a significant, sudden-change moment.
We sat and talked. I shared my story, and he shared his. He’d joined the IRA looking for identity, belonging and a sense of camaraderie following an unsettled upbringing. He found none of these things, and eventually ended up serving time in prison. He was deeply sorry for ever being part of such an organisation. It repulsed him. He was also genuinely sorry for the pain that our family had endured. It pained him to understand how a family had been turned upside down and impacted so deeply. I felt compassion, as if seeing him through eyes that weren’t my own. I was in unchartered territory; this could only be God.
Forgiveness is an unnatural act of the will
He told me how he’d moved to England after he’d been released from prison and fallen into addiction as a way of dealing with his PTSD. One night, unable to cope with the voices in his head, he’d cried out to God to intervene. He woke up to unexplainable peace, and a profound sense that he was loved. He has been pursuing a relationship with Jesus and a transformed life ever since.
Our conversation came to a close. He left and I immediately thought of so many things I wished I’d said. I prayed that if I was meant to see this guy again – an unlikely accident in a field with 5,000 people – God would make it happen.
Two days later: “Sara-Louise!” came the bellow from the crowd. He approached me and gave me a massive hug.
“You’re an answer to prayer,” I told him, recalling my mum’s heartfelt prayers for the IRA throughout my childhood.
“And,” I added, “if Jesus has forgiven me, then I can forgive you.”
Despite times of being crippled by loss and overwhelmed with disappointment across lots of areas of life, I continue to believe that a new way is possible, and that stories of hope can and will restore our collective trauma.
Forgiveness is an unnatural act of the will, often requiring active obedience in response to the Holy Spirit. To forgive can feel impossible, but it is essential for our freedom and the healing of our hearts. This simple teaching has the power to transform society and the world. Bitterness traps us, but forgiveness releases us to live in the full, liberated life God offers.
I’m so thankful to have had a mum who literally prayed Matthew 5:44–45: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” It has been a long, painful and often lonely journey to process it all, but the godly wisdom of my mum has allowed me to step away from bitterness and has freed me to boldly and courageously hope that this isn’t the end of the story. Rather, it’s the foundation of God’s deep calling on my life. The adventure is just beginning.