A powerful new Netflix documentary looks at the bond between two Catholic priests, a friendship forged in compassion in the wake of two horrific mass shootings. Donal O’Keeffe spoke with one of those priests, Cork man Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan
“You drop your five-year-old to school, and half an hour later, they’ve been murdered. How do you ever get over that?” asks Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan, speaking from his home in Dunblane. Monsignor O’Sullivan is 86 now, and has lived in Scotland since he was ordained in 1956, but his Cork accent is still clear.
On the cold, grey morning of Wednesday, March 13, 1996, 43-year-old Thomas Watt Hamilton entered the grounds of Dunblane Primary School. He had, the night before, cut the telephone lines of adjacent houses but had failed to cut the school’s line.
Hamilton had been blacklisted by the British Scouting Association, following numerous complaints about his inappropriate behaviour around children. Hamilton had complained in letters to Queen Elizabeth and to his local MP that rumours about him had caused his shop to fail in 1993.
Around 9.35am, Hamilton walked into the school, carrying four legally-held handguns, and 743 cartridges of ammunition.
Almost quarter of a century later, details of what people in Dunblane call “the school incident” remain deeply distressing, and don’t need to be repeated here. Suffice to say that when Hamilton had completed his attack, 16 children, aged between five and six, were dead, as was one of their teachers. A further 15 were left seriously injured. Hamilton then took his own life.
As the Catholic chaplain of the non-denominational school, Basil O’Sullivan was one of the first people on the scene in Dunblane. In a new Netflix documentary, Lessons from a School Shooting: Notes from Dunblane, he is shown in 1996 footage trying to make sense of what had happened.
Now, Monsignor O’Sullivan reflects on the Snowdrop campaign, which resulted eventually in Britain passing some of the strictest gun laws in the world.
“The parents of Dunblane wouldn’t take no for an answer. What really added insult to injury was that their children were murdered with lawfully-held guns. Hamilton had four guns, and over 700 rounds of ammunition, and he did nothing illegal until he started shooting.
“The parents of Dunblane were insistent this had to change.” They lobbied John Major’s government, and then Tony Blair’s government, until they achieved their goal.
Sixteen years after the Dunblane massacre, on the morning of Friday, December 14, 2012, around 9.35am, 20-year-old Adam Lanza — who had earlier that morning murdered his mother — entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle, two handguns, and 10 magazines of 30 rounds each.
When Lanza had completed his attack, 20 children, aged between six and seven, were dead, as were six adult staff members. Two more people were seriously injured. Lanza then took his own life.
The parallels are striking, but the contrast with Dunblane is upsetting. Fifteen injured people survived Dunblane. Only two survived their injuries in Sandy Hook. The weapons Lanza used were even deadlier than those used by Hamilton.
In the film, Monsignor Bob Weiss, pastor of Saint Rosa of Lima in Newtown, is shown in the throes of post-traumatic stress, as he tries to be a priest in the face of monstrous evil.
At Mass the Sunday after Sandy Hook, Monsignor O’Sullivan prayed in Dunblane for the people of Newton. Afterward, one of his parishioners, Pam Ross, came into the sacristy in tears.
“Pam had lost a beautiful little girl, Joanna, at the shooting in Dunblane all those years ago, and she said we should get in contact with the priest.” Going online, Monsignor O’Sullivan found Monsignor Weiss’s contact details and emailed him a few hours before Weiss would be saying Mass.
“I knew what it would be like, because he would be devastated by the evil, and his congregation would be too, and I was hoping he would get my message before he would go out to Mass.
“We sent out our love and our prayers to him and his congregation. To my surprise, he answered me there and then. I knew he’d be traumatised, but he still answered me.”
Their correspondence culminated in Monsignor O’Sullivan’s visiting Newtown for the first anniversary of Sandy Hook.
“A film-maker got to hear about it, Kim Snyder, in New York. She was very interested in Dunblane, and somehow she heard about my letter.
“She came to Dunblane, and she interviewed a few people here, including me, and she saw the connection between the two communities, the Holy Family parish church in Dunblane, and Saint Rosa of Lima in Newtown. And that’s how the film came about.
“All I did was write a letter!” says Monsignor O’Sullivan, with a gentle laugh. It was obviously a very important letter, I suggest, and it arrived to Monsignor Weiss precisely when it was most desperately needed.
“He was very devastated, the poor man, as I knew he would be, because we were devastated too. It gets to your heart. I mean, I was bereaved when I lost my parents, but I wasn’t affected as I was affected by the shootings in the school. We were all traumatised. The whole community was. It’s not easy to get rid of that.”
Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan was born in Fishguard — an accident of birth, he says — to an Irish mother and father, and grew up in Blackpool in Cork, the youngest of nine children. Of his parents, and siblings, he says wistfully: “They’re all in Heaven now.” The much-loved uncle of many nieces and nephews here, he visits Cork every year, and when home he says daily Mass in Blackpool church. Two years after his diamond jubilee as a priest, he still works full-time, running two parishes in Dunblane and Auchterarder.
Only 23 minutes in length, Notes from Dunblane is a very moving documentary. If it has a fault, it is too short. In its opening minutes, we see a distressed Barack Obama steeling himself before addressing the White House press corps. The film might have benefitted from the space to examine in greater depth the disparity between UK gun politics and those of the US; and contrast in greater detail the success of the Dunblane families in achieving meaningful gun control laws and the sad truth that the US has had over 1,600 mass shootings since Sandy Hook, and, as the documentary notes, in the US, 19 children are shot every single day.
At its heart, the film tells a gentle and terribly moving story of two kind men struggling against unimaginable grief, even as they try to help others. The documentary’s focal point is the correspondence between Basil O’Sullivan and Bob Weiss, initiated in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook attack.
Kindness came to Monsignor Weiss at exactly the moment he needed it most, in the depths of Newtown’s darkest days. Pam Ross, who had 16 years earlier lost her beloved five-year-old daughter, Joanna, in Dunblane, came to Monsignor O’Sullivan’s sacristy and insisted he contact Monsignor Weiss.
Sometimes, even in the midst of despair, it is possible to believe in the existence of angels.
‘Lessons from a School Shooting: Notes from Dunblane’ is on Netflix now.