Annette McGavigan was only eleven years old when the Troubles erupted in the North of Ireland. Her home was in Derry, one of the major flashpoints of the Troubles and a stronghold of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. She and the other children of the area witnessed more conflict than any child should within those first few years. She would have seen the British Army rolling into her city, bringing CS gas, rubber bullets, violence and protest with them. Riot after riot broke out and civil rights marches, anti-internment protests, and anti-police incidents were frequent and violent. These things probably became rather commonplace over the next few years for Annette and the other children who were growing up in areas like Creggan, Little Diamond, and the Bogside.
On Sept. 6th, 1971, when Annette was only fourteen, Catholic schools were closed in Derry. Teachers were taking part in a week-long anti-internment program. This left the schoolchildren with free time. Some joined the protests and riots and others stayed in. Once a small riot had ended on the edge of the Bogside, Annette and her friends went out to collect the leftovers of the violence. Children regularly gathered rubber bullets, gas canisters and more after each riot in Derry and this day off from school gave Annette the perfect opportunity to hunt for these dangerous souvenirs. As the young girl in a school uniform picked up an empty cartridge, a shot rang out. She likely never knew what hit her.
The British soldier’s bullet hit Annette in the back of the head, killing the schoolgirl where she stood. Miss McGavigan was the one-hundredth casualty of the Troubles, and the first child to be killed in the guerrilla war that lasted more than thirty years. She was fourteen when she was shot in the streets of Derry and no one has ever been charged with her death. Annette was a young girl who loved music and art so it is fitting that one of the world-famous Bogside Murals tells her story. Her mural is called the Death of Innocence and it is potent and unforgettable. The artists wanted to draw attention to the children who suffered the most during the conflict and because Annette was both the first murdered child and the hundredth death of the Troubles, she became a perfect tragic muse. She stands in the midst of chaos and splinters, and is painted wearing the school uniform she died in. The mural also features a large rifle and a butterfly that symbolizes change and rebirth.
When the mural was originally painted, the butterfly wasn’t colorful and the gun was sinister, whole, and black. The artists said that if lasting peace came to the region, they’d fill the butterfly with colors. They revisited the mural after the peace process was underway and the Good Friday agreement was ratified. They repainted the butterfly, filling it with different colors after significant progress had been made in the region. They also repainted the gun and broke it in two.
In the end, this brilliant work of art that remembers Annette McGavigan’s tragic death now carries a message of peace, change, and hope. These are the things that young girls everywhere should believe in and strive for as they grow. Annette wasn’t given that chance, but she now symbolizes those things for everyone. She stands tall and is a stark reminder of the horrors of war and the innocents who always pay the highest price. It is a legacy no one would wish for her, but one that keeps her memory alive and her story on the lips of all who visit or live in Derry, even forty-five years after her death.