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Father O'Neill raised the alarm during midday mass at St Eugene's Cathedral. From his room in the parochial house, he could see soldiers moving into positions in Lower Road, just outside, and parishioners had called to say that convoys of troops were crossing the River Foyle over the Craigavon Bridge. He ran across to the cathedral, went straight up to the altar, where Father Daly was bringing mass to a close, and whispered his urgent message into Daly's ear. British soldiers were putting up barbed-wire barriers on William Street and Little James Street. Armoured cars packed with paratroopers in their red berets were lined up in Clarence Avenue. The cathedral was surrounded. Snipers with telescopic sights fixed to their rifles were moving into sandbagged positions on the walls of the old city, and a water cannon had been spotted filling up from a fire hydrant in Strand Road. An army helicopter was circling overhead. It seemed like the Bogside was being invaded.
Father Daly tried to keep calm. Everyone had heard that massive reinforcements would be arriving from Belfast for the Sunday afternoon march and there were rumours that the paratroopers were coming to 'crack heads'. At the end of the mass, Daly told the congregation about the soldiers outside and urged people not to panic; just to walk home as though it were an ordinary Sunday. If they were going on the march, as he hoped they would be, he pleaded with them to make it a peaceful protest. He would be there to help, as usual, if things went wrong.
Across the Bogside, at the Long Tower Catholic church, Father Bradleyoffered a special prayer during mass for the safety of the marchers. He had seen army snipers taking over upstairs rooms at the Derry City Social Club on Bishop Street, and moving into a derelict house on Nailor's Row, just below the city walls. The snipers overlooked the flats in Rossville Street, the new maisonettes in Glenfada Park and Abbey Place, the Bogside Inn and Stanley's Walk, where the Derry Provisional IRA had its headquarters. These army sharpshooters had a clear line of sight to 'aggro corner', the scarred intersection of Rossville and William Street where there was always trouble from the youths who threw stones. The show of force was massive and menacing; there had been nothing like it since the British soldiers arrived in Londonderry two and a half years earlier.
On nearby Barrack Street, troops were building a barrier of wooden knife rests and barbed wire, and one young boy had been arrested for kicking a soldier. In other streets around the Bogside troops had arrived in armoured personnel carriers known as Pigs, and groups of youths were already pelting them with stones.
After mass, Father Bradley went to a house where the family was huddled around a radio listening to the army's messages — a strictly illegal act considered by the authorities to be eavesdropping on official secrets, but everyone tuned in on marching days. The upper-class English accents of army officers, so different and foreign-sounding, reported the confrontations as though they were sporting events, which in a way they were: 'About fifteen chicos stoning OPs [observation posts] 2, 3 and 4. Baton rounds have been fired and a few hits scored.'
In undecipherable army codes, the same voice announced the arrival of each military unit:
Hello, Zero, this is 54 Alpha, positions 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 are now complete. 24 will be completed in about five minutes, over.
I UDR sitrep. A coy, B coy, C coy. S1 moving in now. S2 in position. Y3 moving in now. Y4 in position.
How many positions the army was occupying and where they were you couldn't tell. It seemed like a lot of troops for such a small place. And the list of the regiments sounded like an honour roll of some distant battle on foreign soil — Coldstream Guards, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, Royal Green Jackets, Royal Anglians, 22nd Light Air Defence Regiment, Royal Artillery and, in reserve in case of trouble, the élite soldiers of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (the Paras).
The Paras' convoy of trucks and armoured cars, which had left Belfast before dawn, was due to reach its base location at Drumahoe, three miles outside Derry, at 10 a.m. One of the paratroopers, who was a radio operator in the machine-gun platoon, recalled what happened the night before the Paras came to Derry. In their barracks at Holywood, a pretty little town on Belfast Lough, the lieutenant in charge of the platoon told them they were to carry out internal security duty in Derry the next day. According to the radio operator, the lieutenant painted a lurid picture of the mayhem the IRA had caused there: 'Several hundred soldiers had been hospitalized and not one arrest had been made.'
He looked around at his colleagues in the barrack room and saw delight on their faces.
After all the abuse and nights without sleep, frustrations and tension, this is what they had been waiting for.
We were all in high spirits and when our Lieutenant said, 'Let's teach these buggers a lesson — we want some kills tomorrow ...' this was tantamount to an order (i.e. an exoneration of all responsibility).
We set off in a convoy across Northern Ireland. It was a beautiful sunny day, patches of snow were still to be seen. When we arrived at Derry we parked our vehicles in the back of the town and debussed. We knew that the Creggan 'was an IRA fortress, conning towers, machine-guns and barbed wire as well as land mines guarding its approaches. The people of Creggan had not paid rent and hijacked all their food for several years.' A technical hitch was discovered on the way. The Paras lost their radio link with army headquarters in Derry; the set was faulty.
After the Paras had come, the road blocks went up along the seventy-mile route from Belfast. At 9.35 a.m. the Royal Green Jackets reported: `Op SPONDON in op.'
Operation Spondon was a standing plan to seal off the area along the border with the Irish Republic.
Father Bradley's parishioners told him they refused to be intimidated by the presence of so many soldiers; if the British army came out in force that afternoon, then so would they.
Supporters of the march, as well as troops, were coming in from all over Northern Ireland, according to the army's radio. At 10.45 a.m. British army headquarters in Lisburn reported: 'Three buses left 1000 hrs, full of women and children. Taking South route down the Falls Road [Belfast's Catholic ghetto].'
Leaders of the civil rights movement were also on their way, including Derry's young firebrand socialist, Eamonn McCann, and Bernadette Devlin who, at twenty-one, had become the youngest woman ever elected to the British Parliament, as MP for Mid-Ulster. She could draw a crowd in Derry. When she was sent to jail for six months for taking part in the Battle of the Bogside, even moderates and conservative Catholics protested; by that legal reckoning they were all criminals.
Other civil rights leaders were flying into Belfast from London. Lord (Fenner) Brockway, the former socialist MP, lifelong anti-imperialist and human rights campaigner, arrived in the same plane as Tony Smythe, general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties. To avoid army checkpoints Brockway drove a circuitous route, mostly through the Republic. Even so, his car was stopped and searched three times before they reached Derry. Smythe took the more direct route through Maghera and Dungiven, staying on Ulster roads, and was stopped so many times at road blocks that he missed the march altogether.
At 10.31 a.m. the army radio reported: 'One, maybe two, buses bound from Belfast to Portadown and Cookstown to Derry. Expected to pick up B. [Bernadette] Devlin and Austin [Currie, the Nationalist MP for Tyrone] at Cookstown.'
In fact, Devlin was driving to Derry with McCann, as the army would shortly find out. Each time the couple drove through military checkpoints, the army radio reported their progress: '12.45 p.m.: Bernadette has passed through road block in Cookstown.'
Devlin and McCann had heard there would be a good turnout for the march and were also sure there would be violence, and possibly even some shooting; as they approached Derry they were even guessing at how many might be shot.
In Derry, most people expected trouble at 'aggro corner', the Bogside gateway to Derry's commercial district. Shoppers approached this important intersection from the south along Rossville Street, from the west down William Street and from the north through Little James Street. Four years of riots at the corner itself had taken their toll; no shops or bars remained intact; they had been gutted and firebombed, their fronts now crudely boarded up with corrugated iron, their walls covered with graffiti. The pavements had been torn up to make chunks of concrete to hurl at the troops.
The 'hooligans', 'yobbos' or 'chicos', as the army variously called them, would gather each day at this intersection among the burntout or derelict buildings, where there was a plentiful supply of missiles — stones, bricks, slabs of pavement, iron bars, bottles, tin cans and lead pipes — to hurl at the troops. If the youths were IRA volunteers they had access to home-made bombs, nails wrapped in gelignite, which were lethal weapons in the army rule book and soldiers were permitted to shoot to kill if they saw anyone throwing them.
But most afternoons the youths chucked stones, and the soldiers fired rubber bullets and canisters of CS gas. In a city which, prior to 1968, was famous for its low crime rate, rioting became a daily ritual, creating local heroes out of those who took on the army. The spectacle made good television and the youths would sometimes take a break to see themselves on TV in a local bar. Then they would come back and start again.
When a stone found its mark they cheered and when a rubber bullet hit home the soldiers cheered. Sometimes, if the stoning was too rough, the troops rushed the youths and, if they could catch them — which generally they could not — in the warren of narrow streets and alleys, they arrested them for riotous behaviour. The rioting would usually end without bloodshed — stones would miss their targets or bounce off the soldiers' plastic shields; the rubber bullets, which were capable of inflicting fatal wounds or putting out an eye and smashing teeth, mostly caused nasty bruises, or bounced harmlessly down the street. The riot would end when the youths tired and went home for tea, or when it rained, whichever came first. Only twice in two and a half years had unarmed youths been shot by real bullets.
Word of the arrival in Derry of the paratroopers spread quickly and was especially unnerving for those who had seen them in action the weekend before at Magilligan, an old army camp on a sandy headland near Lough Foyle, where internees were being held. The marchers went there in a fleet of hired buses singing 'We Shall Overcome', not knowing the Paras had been sent to meet them. They scrambled across the dunes and along the strand to the barbed-wire fence around the camp, where the army told them they could go no further because it was Ministry of Defence property.
The presence of the Paras was not immediately apparent to the crowd and the atmosphere was at first good-humoured. The Green Jackets' commander offered tea and buns if marchers agreed to follow a route up to a barrier at the camp's entrance (where an enormous airport-style foam dispenser was stationed in case of trouble).
But when a group of protesters headed towards the barbed wire, the Paras were waiting for them. The Guardian newspaper's correspondent, Simon Winchester, provided a graphic description of what happened next.
'A dozen paratroopers opened fire with their gas guns. Volley after volley of rubber bullets flashed and flittered across the sand: a score of demonstrators hit by the bullets crumpled up into the sand ... for half an hour there was bitter hand-to-hand fighting.' The crowd snatched up sticks and rocks from the beach, the troops responded with more rubber bullets at point-blank range.
Under the eyes of the television cameras and press photographers, a few of the Paras appeared to lose control completely. One was pictured swinging his rifle like a club, others had to be held back physically by fellow soldiers from attacking demonstrators. Some marchers claimed that a Para officer struck one of his own men, while a press photographer heard a Green Jackets soldier exclaim: 'Christ, we're here to stop the protesters, not kill them.'
When dusk fell, the marchers gave up and went back to the buses, several of them nursing bad cuts and bruises. This was the first time Derry people had clashed with the Paras and it seemed to them to be a deliberate 'get tough' strategy on the army's part. Everyone saw the confrontation that evening on TV and many wondered apprehensively if the same hyper-aggressive element would be deployed in Derry the following weekend.
The word at the British Legion Club during the week was that the Loyalists had organized a counter march, also to end at the Guildhall, and if people wanted to avoid trouble they should stay away. By Saturday the warnings had hardened: the Paras were coming and there were going to be killings. Army officers who were friendly with some of the nurses at Altnagelvin Hospital, the big medical centre in the Protestant Waterside, had warned Catholics not to go on the march because there would be blood spilled.
Paddy Doherty had been caught up in the mélée at Magilligan. He lived with his wife, Eileen, and their six children in Hamilton Street on the southern edge of the Bogside, and when he heard that the Paras had arrived in Derry on Sunday morning he told Eileen she shouldn't go on the march; there was bound to be trouble. 'The paratroopers are a bad bunch of bastards,' he warned her.
The Dohertys were veterans of civil rights marches and at the centre of the 1969 riots. When that battle was over, Paddy had come home, filthy dirty and tired out, but he and the other volunteers had held the line: the vicious police attack had been beaten back and the army had been called in to restore peace. It was a triumphal ending for the Bogsiders, however brief, because the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had lost its authority. 'It's the best holiday I've ever had,' Paddy told Eileen. In those days, he used to talk a lot about the IRA and Eileen had the feeling he had been asked to join up, but he never did. He respected the volunteers' right to take up arms, he said, but would never do so himself.
Unlike so many Bogside men, Paddy Doherty had something to lose. After leaving school at fourteen he had held odd jobs in construction, one of them in England on a big tunnelling scheme in Penrith. He returned home with a pay packet and the hope that he would be able to find work in his home town. In contrast to England's booming economy with strong trade unions, jobs in Derry were few and the unions weak; even if work was available, the wages were generally low. Some employers recruited women and youths under eighteen in order to pay them less. One electronics firm continued its under-eighteen policy until late 1996 when it sacked 1500 employees at one hour's notice and then closed down.
New industries were not coming to Derry. Between 1945 and 1966 only two in a total of 224 new industries set up in Ulster went to Derry, Ulster's second-largest city. Even Ulster's second university, for which Derry had an obvious claim, was given to Coleraine, a smaller, more prosperous and overwhelmingly Protestant city thirty miles to the east of Derry. In this atmosphere of despair, some men chose unemployment and state benefits in preference to low-wage jobs.
Paddy Doherty was hard-working, and lucky. For the last six years he had been employed at the American-owned DuPont synthetic rubber factory, starting as a labourer and rising to be a plumber's mate. He was popular and conscientious and he had a nickname, 'Skelper'; it didn't mean anything — except to distinguish him from all the other Dohertys. Now aged thirty-one, he had been married for eleven years; Eileen had been the girl next door when they were growing up. Doherty was the figure of authority in the family; he only had to call the children once and they came. Eileen respected him and almost always took his advice, but on this day she insisted on going on the march. She felt as strongly as he did about internment; that this inhuman law of locking up people without trial had to be thrown out. Paddy had agreed to be a steward on the march, so he had to go. If the stewards could not control the young stone throwers, then trouble was inevitable.
After lunch, Paddy and Eileen left their house and strolled up the hill to the Creggan, a post-World War Two council house estate. Rows of white stuccoed, two-storey houses, indistinguishable from one another, spread out from the new St Mary's Catholic church, a row of shops, a modern school and dilapidated playing fields, it was bleak and uninviting. Apart from Central Drive, the names of the streets, which were wider and longer than any to be found in the warren of Victorian terraces of the Bogside, were all named something drive or something gardens, a concept which was in the name only. Evidently, the will, or the money, to pretty up the estate with trees and shrubs was not there; not even for the cemetery. The best the residents could do was to put up wicker fences, or a hedge, round their front doors. On days when the army's armoured cars dared to penetrate the barricades, young boys pelted them with stones, just like they did in the Bogside. But the army had not been in the Creggan for some months.
Paddy and Eileen took an unusual route, cutting through the cemetery to the open ground known as the Bishop's Field, a patch of grass where the marchers were now assembling. Doherty took out his white handkerchief and tied it round his arm to show he was a steward, said 'Cheerio' to Eileen and went off to join the other stewards. Eileen said, 'Cheerio, see you later' and watched him go, cheerful and excited about the day. Remembering what he had said about the paratroopers, she joined her sisters at the back of the march. It was the last time she saw Paddy alive.
As people gathered at the Bishop's Field, there were as many women as men, which was a new development for Derry. Sunday was traditionally a day when Catholic mothers, exhausted by the burden of tending to their large families, stole two hours after lunch for a stroll and a natter, often in the Creggan cemetery.
A visit there, on the hill overlooking Derry and the River Foyle, was a genuine pleasure for these women. The view is splendid and the cemetery is a huge open space filled with memories of the large, interrelated families of the Catholic ghetto; it provided a fund of stories for good 'craic'. Dreams of a better life, in this world or the next, were spun on such afternoons. If the children had to come because there was no one at home to look after them, hide and seek among the gravestones kept them happy.
Four years of the uprising had presented these women with a new Sunday afternoon pursuit: marching with the men. On occasion, they even marched by themselves. In May 1971 Roisin Keenan, daughter of Derry's IRA veteran Sean Keenan, started the Women's Action Committee whose first public protest against British army brutality saw 300 women march through the Bogside to an army post in the centre of the city.
Some husbands still would not let their wives go on demonstrations, but no such restriction had ever applied to Peggy Deery, a thirty-eight-year-old widow with fourteen children, one of the ghetto's better-known victims of life's injustices. She had turned out for the first protest against housing conditions in 1968 and had been on every march since then.
Peggy Deery was born in 1933 in Limewood Street in the heart of the Bogside, the last of five children. Her parents had been born in the Bogside and when they first married they lived in Miller's Close, which was separated from Bridge Street by a pub called Buckets of Blood. Her father and her two older brothers had fought in World War Two, which helped boost the family income. Her mother sold home-made toffee apples and, out of season, squares of toffee in wax paper. Peggy and her sister Nellie worked in Derry's shirt factories. Nellie had five children, and seventeen miscarriages and still-births, and Peggy had sixteen children, including three sets of twins (two children died at birth). After they married, Peggy went to Portsmouth with her husband Patsy, who painted ships for the navy while Peggy worked in a bleach factory. But they missed the extended family life of Derry; there were no grannies and aunts and uncles, no family support when you needed it in a land where the Irish labouring class was mocked and vilified.
Peggy and Patsy returned to live in tenement rooms in Magazine Street, just inside the city walls. As the family grew, so did the strains on the marriage and then Patsy was diagnosed with cancer of the spine. He died in October 1971 after a long illness that caused him and the family to suffer greatly. By then Peggy had at long last been given a council house, an aluminium-sided bungalow — with its own bathroom and a patch of grass in Swilly Gardens on the top of Creggan Hill.
Desperately poor and permanently in debt, Peggy Deery was among the leaders of the rent strike against internment. Her oldest boy, Paddy aged sixteen, had recently joined the youth wing of the IRA. On a fine day like this Sunday there was no way Peggy Deery would miss the march.
After making her family Sunday lunch, Peggy put her eldest daughter, Margie aged fourteen, in charge of the children and dressed up as though she was going on an outing. She put on a black, mock-leather, wet-look coat, which had fun-fur trimming around the hem, and shiny black boots to match. Then she walked the few hundred yards to the Bishop's Field and joined her nieces, Rita and Sandra. Owen Deery, Peggy's eleven-year-old son, accompanied his mother, even though she had told him not to come; she was embarrassed that he had a large hole in one of his shoes and told him to go home. She even gave him some money to leave the march and buy something in the shop. But to Owen it was like a day out and he tagged along. It was to be Peggy's last public protest.
Among those who thought of staying at home to watch football on television was Barney McGuigan. A forty-one-year-old unemployed painter who lived with his wife and six children in Iniscairn Crescent on the edge of the cemetery in the Creggan, McGuigan was a big, caring man who used to do maintenance work for Monarch Electric, but had lost his job when the company closed because of the Troubles. Now, he had turned his varied skills to helping the community and he had a reputation for being able to fix anything from a broken window to a motor car — his own automobile was a distinctive, lurid shade of blue, painted by himself. He was an amateur stone mason and, if you couldn't afford the prices being charged by the professionals for a gravestone, McGuigan would carve you one for free in his back garden.
There was no community centre and nothing for kids to do in the area of the Creggan where the McGuigans lived. His oldest boy, Charlie, who was nearly seventeen, had just passed five 0 Levels and was expecting the results of another. A younger son was at St Columb's College, the Catholic grammar school. The youngest, in primary school, had just won a handwriting contest. The McGuigans were doing well.
The flats opposite Barney's house were in a bad state, with street lights smashed, and he had started the Bligh's Lane Tenants' Association. Bligh's Lane led down into the Bogside and was the one street in the entire Free Derry area that had a police station — manned by two RUC officers with 200 British soldiers there to guard them.
After ten-o'clock mass with the family at St Mary's in the Creggan, McGuigan attended two funerals of friends, conducted by Father Daly from the cathedral, and then settled in front of the telly. Shortly after the football began, however, his sister arrived and said she was going to join the march, so he decided to go with her. McGuigan told his wife that he would be back before she cooked the tea. When he left home, she gave him a rag soaked in vinegar as protection against CS gas. She always did that when he was going into the Bogside and there was a likelihood of trouble. Before leaving Barney told his son, Charlie, that in no circumstances was he to go on the march, there was too much chance of it turning violent. A friend of Charlie's suggested they could still go down to the town to see what was happening without being on the march and so they set off anyway.
Copyright © 2000 Jack Womack. All rights reserved.
|I The Alarm||9|
|II City Under Siege||25|
|III Operation Forecast||47|
|IV The Decision to Put Civilians at Risk||75|
|V Barrier 14||93|
|VI How Could Anyone Pick on Me as a Gunman||109|
|VII Move! Move! Move!||123|
|VIII Shoot Me! Shoot Me!||135|
|IX The Rubble Barricade||159|
|X Don't Move, Pretend You're Dead||183|
|XI I Can't Stand This Any Longer||203|
|XII A Token Retaliation||221|
|XIII I'll Never Turn My Back on a Para||229|
|XIV For God's Sake Hurry Up, I'm Dying||247|
|XV Going Home||269|
|Note on Sources||301|