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Battle of the Bogside: It's 50 years since the community riot that changed Ireland

In August 1969, the people of the city’s Bogside area erected barricades to prevent the RUC entering.

The Petrol Bomber mural depicting a scene from the 'Battle of the Bogside.
The Petrol Bomber mural depicting a scene from the 'Battle of the Bogside.
Image: PA Images

DERRY IS THIS week remembering one of the seminal events of the city’s history and one which had a huge influence on the last 50 years on this island. 

The August 1969 Battle of the Bogside was a three-day riot in the city which saw the people of the Bogside area erect barricades to prevent the RUC entering.

The violence ultimately led to the deployment of British troops on the streets, a decision that was initially welcomed by many of those in the area.

It saw the Irish government respond by promising aid to the Bogsiders but stopping short of providing any kind of military support. Instead Taoiseach Jack Lynch decided on erecting field hospitals for the injured in several areas along the border. 

The Battle of the Bogside is not considered the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland but the events were certainly an escalation that had a major effect on what followed. 

So what happened and why is it important?

Background

The background of the Battle of the Bogside was the emergence of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and the resistance it faced from the state. 

The campaign echoed many of the similar drives that were taking place around the world but in the specific case of Northern Ireland, gerrymandering meant an engineered lack of political representation for most Catholics.  

In Derry, where there was a majority nationalist population, unionists controlled the council. 

In the late 1960s, Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was at the forefront of seeking to change this but was often met with violent resistance to their campaigning. 

One direct precursor to the events of August 1969 was an incident in the preceding January when a student march from Belfast to Derry was attacked by loyalists at several points along the route. 

At one point at Burntollet Bridge outside Derry, they came under sustained attack with the north’s police force the Royal Ulster Constabulary doing little to intervene. 

The armed and controversial auxiliary police unit ‘the B Specials’ was also present at Burntollet Bridge, adding to the fear of the marchers. 

Source: OpenReelProductions/YouTube

In his book War and an Irish Town, activist and journalist Eamonn McCann described how the RUC’s actions further poisoned its reputation among nationalists: 

On the final day of the march, at Burntollet Bridge a few miles outside Derry, a force of some hundreds, marshalled by members of the B Specials and watched passively by our ‘escort’ of more than a hundred police, attacked with nailed clubs, stones and bicycle chains.Of the eighty who had set out fewer than thirty arrived in Derry uninjured.

Three months later, local man Sammy Devenney was savagely beaten by police when they burst into his and other homes in the city during rioting. 

The 42-year-old Devenney died a few months later in July 1969 and he is regarded by many as the first victim of the Troubles. 

Following his death, many within Derry had resolved that an August march by the Apprentice Boys should not go ahead due to the violence it could provoke. 

Derry Citizens Defence Association

Despite calls for the march to be cancelled, it went ahead on 12 August and was met with stone-throwing by protesters. 

As the RUC attempted to fight back against protesters and enter the Bogside, barricades that had been erected by the newly formed Derry Citizens Defence Association (DCDA) stopped them.

The DCDA had effectively secured an area within the city and residents fired stones and petrol bombs from the top of apartment blocks as they attempted to break through. 

Police fired CS gas and used batons and armoured vehicles on the protesters in running battles that lasted for three days.  

BERNADETTE DEVLIN, M.P. ADDRESSES BOGSIDE CROWD. Bernadette Devlin addresses the crowd in the Bogside in August 1969. Source: PA Images

Bernadette Devlin had recently been elected as a Westminster MP and was one of the leading voices representing the Bogsiders. 

In a 2004 documentary about the Battle of the Bogside, McCann said it was difficult to define her role in the events but that she was “an inspirational figure” who was “out there among the people” and was “a terrific speaker”. 

Speaking of her memory of her involvement, Devlin says she didn’t rest for a moment: 

There was an impression that I was everywhere, I suppose I was noticeable because it was me and maybe I shouldn’t have been at it as a member of parliament. But looking back on it, my memory was I never slept for three days and three nights, I suppose. I was quite determined the police weren’t coming in. 

Irish government’s response

Source: dubinboston/YouTube

With injuries mounting during the rioting, the DCDA appealed for “every able-bodied man in Ireland” to travel to Derry to defend the Bogside.

As Ireland watched the violence unfolding, Taoiseach Jack Lynch addressed the nation and said that it was clear “the RUC is no longer accepted as an impartial police force” and that the Northern Ireland government was not in control of the situation.

In a line that suggested to many rioters in Derry that the Irish government was preparing to send troops across the border, Lynch added:

The Irish government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse.

Instead, Lynch requested that Britain ask for UN troops be sent to Northern Ireland, making the prescient point that the presence of British troops could cause problems down the road.

“Neither would the employment of British troops be acceptable nor would they be likely to restore peaceful conditions — certainly not in the long term,” Lynch said.

The Irish government have, therefore, requested the British government to apply immediately to the United Nations for the urgent despatch of a peace-keeping force to the six counties of Northern Ireland and have instructed the Irish permanent representative to the United Nations to inform the secretary-general of this request.

Both the British and Northern Irish governments reacted negatively to Lynch’s speech. Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark denounced it as “an intolerable intrusion”.

The British government declined to ask for the help of UN peacekeepers and instead deployed 300 British Army troops from the 1st Battalion, Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire to the streets of Derry. 

The decision by the British government to send its own soldiers rather than allowing the Northern Ireland government deploy the B Specials was seen as a victory by many within the DCDA.

“I don’t like British troops but they’re better than the specials,” Bogsider Eddie McAteer told an RTÉ report the day they arrived. 

That report by RTÉ’s Tom McCaughren explained that the barricades remained in place in Derry but that the fighting had stopped. 

“The troops arrival has done much to defuse the position, the main conflict between Catholics and police has vanished, along with the police,” McCaughren reported.

All day Derry had feared a confrontation between Catholics and Paisleyites, last night had seen the beginning of this. The arrival of armed B Specials, so often accused by Catholics of being Paisleyites in uniform had added grimly to the tension, but when the troops swept into the city centre at just after 5pm this afternoon, relief was evident on all sides.

Northern Ireland - Bogside Riots Police battle with rioters in the Bogside, 1969. Source: PA Images

Legacy

The events of August 1969 came two years before Bloody Sunday but left a very distinctive mark on the city of Derry. 

The memory of a community acting together and ordinary people doing extraordinary things is what is being marked ahead of the 50th anniversary.

Maeve McLaughlin of the Bloody Sunday Trust explains that what happened led to a shift in mindset among many people in the city. 

“It was a very significant period in our history. And some will say it was a turning point.

Because for a lot of people it changed their view of the whole civil rights peaceful approach, to something that had to be met with stronger resistance if you like, and it was also the point at which the British soldiers were brought in for the first time. 

The Bloody Sunday Trust has curated an exhibition on the Battle of Bogside in the city’s Guildhall that seeks to share stories from people who haven’t been heard from before.

“We have tried to record the stories of people who played a part at that period of time, but who never made the history books,” McLaughlin explains. 

“It was the ordinary people who in some cases stepped up who defended their communities, who defended their areas, sometimes staffed the barricades, sometimes looked after the wounded, sometimes their houses were turned into almost medical centres.” 

McLaughlin says that finding new stories to tell was not difficult because there was so many out there but that speaking to people about the events enforced just how prominent the actions women were. 

“There were large numbers of women who were the backbone of that particular period,” she says.

“People like Bridget Shiels, whose house effectively became almost a field centre, a medical centre. People were looked after, whether they were hurt or injured or people who had time to rest in it. People like Annie McCourt, who was effectively known as ‘Annie Binlid’, because of the protests and letting people know when the British army were coming in.”

After moving from the Guildhall, The Free Derry Lives exhibition will move to its permanent home in the Museum of Free Derry.

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Rónán Duffy

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