Derry’s role in the War for Independence: Part 7

The centre of Derry in the early 1920s often became a battleground that claimed many casualties.

The centre of Derry in the early 1920s often became a battleground that claimed many casualties.

  • Support for Sinn Fein in Derry grew dramatically
  • It was believed the British sectarianised the situation
  • Great bloodshed took place in Derry in 1920
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In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising the surge in support for Sinn Fein grew across Ireland and Derry was no exception. Liam Brady takes up the story of what was going on in the city at the time.

He said: “The membership of the Padraig Pearse Sinn Fein Club had so increased that it became necessary to form another cumann.

“The Owen Roe O’Neill Band, whose members had always been of the ‘Irish-Ireland’ type, decided to let their hall for part of the week and a new Sinn Fein Club was formed under the name of ‘The Tomas Ashe Club.’

“Hundreds of people from the Bishop Street area flocked to this club and it soon became the most active Sinn Fein Club in the city. Robert McAnaney was an outstanding chairman and James Gallagher a most efficient secretary. The committee had an ingenious method by which the work of the cumann became interesting and enjoyable, thus succeeding in spreading the doctrine of Sinn Fein more successfully than many other cumann.”

Arms raids

“During this time by the Active Service Unit of the IRA. were very active. They carried out raids on dozens of estates owned by ex-British officers, where shotguns and various types of rifles and revolvers were found. A raiding party left Derry by car and visited the residence of Sir R Anderson, Unionist Mayor of Derry, at Moville, County Donegal.

“On August 27, 1918, a raid was arranged for the residence of Mr H Waller, Troy House. Five men went by the Moville Road and were to enter the grounds by the front gate at a given time. Five others were to go to Eglinton and carry out a raid on the residence of Colonel Davidson, then row across the river and enter the rear of the grounds. Everything was going well until one of the boys noticed that the boat was filling with water. At this time they were well out and near Rosses Bay.

“They tried to bail out the water with an old hat that one of the boys was wearing, but the water came in faster than they could bail it out. They realised that it would not be long until the boat would sink. It was getting dark and there was no way that they could get help. To add to their plight not one of them could swim. The two at the oars pulled with all their might in the direction of the shore, while another bailed as fast as he could. At last they found themselves within wading distance of the shore. They succeeded in landing and, although they were wet to the waist, they went to the place arranged, carried out the raid with their companions on Troy House and took away some shotguns and ammunition. “A daring one-man raid was carried out on the General Post Office where telephone apparatus was taken. This was later used to tap the telephone wires leading to Victoria Barracks. Valuable information was received.

“One day the British naval destroyer ‘Briscot’ was towed into Derry Shipyard for repairs, having struck a mine off Inishowen Head. While in the dry dock she was boarded by members of the ASU, who took away seven rifles and some ammunition. On another occasion an armed fishing trawler came to Derry and was berthed at the upper part of the Quay facing Brown’s Foundry. A number of workmen who were members of the IRA were sent to work on this trawler and when there they cut the bolts that held the gun in place. They had made preparations for the removal of the gun when the whole gang was shifted to another job. About that time another trawler was raided and her supply of 18-inch shells taken away. In November, 1919, members of the ASU threw a hand grenade into the stores department of Derry Jail from the corner of Bennett Street. The loud explosion caused consternation among the Governor and warders and alarmed the people of the surrounding district. The damage was not stated by the jail authorities.

A narrow escape

Members of the British Armys Dorset Regiment on patrol in Foyle Street in Derry in 1920.

Members of the British Armys Dorset Regiment on patrol in Foyle Street in Derry in 1920.

“In the same month a member of the Fianna who was the son of a British soldier and who himself had lived with his parents in the married quarters in Ebrington Military Barracks and knew every nook and corner of the place, told me that it would be easy to get some ammunition.

“After explaining all the details and drawing a plan of the place everything seemed quite feasible to me, so I told Gabriel McGrath. He and Sean Haughey decided to come along. They brought revolvers and were to protect us while we forced our way through a wooden fence into the but on the grounds used by the military for rifle practice. Six Fianna boys came with me. We all carried haversacks which we were under our top coats. The weather was cold and suited the occasion. We went to the end of the Bar-racks at the bottom of Browning Drive and succeeded in cutting through the wooden fence into where the small wooden hut was situated.

“In this hut the ammunition was stored and this was where we intended to fill our haversacks. We were to send each Fianna boy away as soon as he had got a supply. On the side of the hut was the place where a window had originally been. It was now covered by a thick wire mesh. It did not take long to cut through this and one of the boys I was preparing to climb up into the when he got the whisper that a sentry was coming.

“We all lay flat. As he came to the edge of the hut he gave the usual click of the heels and returned. He hadn’t got far when we realised that there was a second sentry on the same post. One of the boys made a noise and the sentry, not knowing where the noise came from, was shouting ‘halt’.

Paid agitators were put to work and religious bigotry instilled

The IRA ordered their men to disperse quietly and to take up their usual occupations-Liam Brady

“We succeeded in getting out to the wooden fence, running crouched, over to St. Columb’s Field where we ran with all our might until we got into the safety of the trees, in the distance the sentry blew his whistle and fired a few shots.

“We realised now that the whole military guard were being called out. Making for the open road we crossed in the direction of the ()id Trench Road and in a short time reached the head of Dungiven Road, keeping our eyes skinned to see if the police or military were holding anyone up. Everything seemed quite normal, so we proceeded across the Bridge in groups of three.

“I told the boys to go straight home and not to mention a word to anyone. We enjoyed listening to the reports next day that a large party of the IRA had attacked the soldiers in Ebrington Barracks.”

Gaelic class bombed

“On February 13, 1919, a Gaelic class was in progress in the upper portion of the Sinn Fein hall in Richmond Street. About seventy people were present.

“In the lower room nine or ten men sat round a big scorching fire. Some yards away five men sat at a table playing a game of dominoes, and there were several other people scattered throughout the hall when a bomb came crashing in through one of the windows and landed near the men at the fire. Someone shouted ‘a bomb.’

Initial newspaper reports of the fighting in the city during this era.

Initial newspaper reports of the fighting in the city during this era.

“The alarm was raised and the people upstairs were hurried down. There was no panic. Everyone expected to hear an explosion at any moment, but Frank McDevitt, coming on the scene and seeing brownish thick clouds coming near one of the windows, realised that the missile was a smoke bomb.

“He opened the windows and in a short time the bomb had burned itself out and things came back to normal. A few men were posted at the corner outside to prevent a recurrence.

“Had it been a time bomb or a hand grenade the consequences would have been disastrous for the explosion most certainly would have taken place before any of the people would have had time to get out of the hall.

“Many good Presbyterian’s came and offered their services to the Irish cause. Those men who had the spirit of Tone, McCracken and Orr could not stand idly by and see the country that gave them birth being trampled on by the English wolves. They tried to teach their co-religionists the truth of Irish nationality and to try to kill that English invented bogeyman that Irishmen of different religious beliefs could not live together in peace.

“Those men were successful to an extent, but England’s agents saw what was happening and fearing the unity of the whole Irish people, tried all the knavish tricks possible to conceive so that they could apply ‘that maxim with which they built their Empire, ‘divide and conquer.

“The English controlled Orange Lodges received instructions from the Grand Masters that Sinn Feiner’s and Catholics were to be attacked. Paid agitators were put to work and religious bigotry instilled to such an extent that miniature riots between Unionists and Nationalists broke out periodically.

“This consisted of stone-throwing, catch-cries and party songs. There were usually a number of shop windows broken and sometimes the pilfering of their contents rook place. The Royal Irish Constabulary played the part of restoring order after some damage had been done.”

British forces

“At this time the Queen’s and Dorset Regiments began taking up positions in various parts of the city. They had a great display of machine guns, armoured cars and full equipment, including their field kitchens.

“The IRA ordered their men to disperse quietly and to take up their usual occupations as, they were not going to let the British trick them into a full scale attack where they would be outnumbered both in men and material. Their arms and ammunition were collected and taken safely back to their dumps while a few men with revolvers were stationed at various points for the protection of churches and streets that were in the danger zone.

“Alter a few days the British soldiers started their usual activities of raiding for arms but, remember, only in nationalist districts, In spite of their searching they only succeeded in getting an odd revolver here and there. Thus started the campaign of terror that was to be used to keep the Catholics and the non-Catholic people from ever uniting. Britain’s plans succeeded and the flow of non-Catholics into the IRA was halted.

“All this was part of the plan that was to prepare the way for coming events. On Thursday, June 18, 1920, a Protestant gentleman sent word to a Republican officer that the Dorset Regiment were handing over rifles and ammunition to a certain section of the Unionists so as to create trouble and if possible a civil and religious war.

“The Republican officer thought that the story was too fantastic and dismissed it as such. But on Saturday night, June 20, 1920, about eight o’clock a drunken squabble took place between two men at Bishop Gate.

“Naturally, this attracted a small crowd. When however, the fight was over and most of the people had dispersed a group of Orangemen numbering about twenty, armed with British Service rifles, started firing down Fountain Street and Albert Street into Bishop Street and Long Tower Street, which was purely a nationalist district.”

Next time-The summer of 1920, brings sectarian fighting onto the streets of Derry and many from both sides are killed in gun battles.

Ferryquay Gate in Derry was also the scene of some fighting during this period.

Ferryquay Gate in Derry was also the scene of some fighting during this period.

Sectarian tensions increased dramatically in this era between people living in Protestant and Catholic areas. This is Kennedy Street in the Fountain area.

Sectarian tensions increased dramatically in this era between people living in Protestant and Catholic areas. This is Kennedy Street in the Fountain area.

Bishop Gate in Derry was also the scene of some fighting during this period.

Bishop Gate in Derry was also the scene of some fighting during this period.