Derry’s role in the War for Independence Part 8

Hugh C O'doherty, who became the first nationalist Mayor of Derry in 1920.
Hugh C O'doherty, who became the first nationalist Mayor of Derry in 1920.
  • Fierce fighting in Derry saw many killed during the summer of 1920
  • The IRA took over St Columb’s College
  • The first nationalist Mayor of Derry was installed in 1920

This week Liam Brady describes what happened on June 20, 1920 in Derry when sectarian fighting hit the city.

The attack opens

“Their (loyalists) first shots struck John O’Neill, wounding him in the leg near the knee and killing an old man named John McVeigh, who received a very nasty wound on the neck. The Rev. Father Walter O’Neil, Long Tower, was just in time to administer the last rites of the Church after making his, way through a barrage of bullets.

“John Farren, who had just come from the Long Tower Church, where he had been to confession, received two ricochetted bullets in the stomach. He must have died in great pain. Another man called Mallet, who was to travel to the USA the next week, was hurrying home when he received a bullet in the back and died a short while afterwards.

“While this was taking place another section of armed Orangemen came marching over London Street and down Bishop Street, firing shots, one roof which struck and killed a Mr. Price, who was stopping in the Diamond Hotel.

“The Orangemen were led by an ex-Army Sergeant. Taking up positions in the Diamond, they started firing down Butcher Street and into Waterloo ‘Street, killing a man named McLaughlin and wounding a woman who came to his aid, waving a white apron.

Ferryquay Street in the city centre-fighting between republican and nationalists took place in and around here as well.

Ferryquay Street in the city centre-fighting between republican and nationalists took place in and around here as well.

“Four armed policemen who were on duty moved away, leaving the centre of the city in the hands of the Orangemen. Those attacks lasted from 8 till 11 o’clock. Five were killed and 24 wounded.

“No police or soldiers came to protect the Nationalists although there was a battalion of the Dorset Regiment and hundreds of police in the city at the time. Those attacks were only a test to see what resistance, if any, would come from the IRA and the Nationalist people in general.

“ Seeing there was no attempt to counter-attack or even to defend, the British-controlled Orangemen thought that the time was ripe for the taking over of Derry.”

Wild rumours

Andrew Bonar Law who was British Prime Minister at the time.

Andrew Bonar Law who was British Prime Minister at the time.

“The next day was Sunday and everything was peaceful except for the wild rumours that flooded the city.

“Most people thought that the worst had passed and prepared to go to their work as usual on Monday morning, but when the Nationalist dockers and coal porters started their work at the quay they came under a hail of bullets, fired at them from the other side of the river by at least twenty riflemen.

“Factory girls and all other classes of workers found their way blocked by snipers who had taken up positions on the most strategic points throughout the city.

“The snipers on roofs in John Street, covered the Bridge, John Street, Foyle Road. Abercorn Road, foot of Bridge Street, and part of Foyle Street.

Derry city centre in effect became a battleground in 1920.

Derry city centre in effect became a battleground in 1920.

“The snipers similarly placed in Carlisle Road controlled Orchard Street, part of Bridge Street, Market Street and a large portion of the Walls.

“Snipers on Walker’s Monument, the Protestant Cathedral, Bishop Street, the Orange Hall and the Masonic Hall in Magazine Street had a commanding view over most of the Nationalist area and things were such that for a time the city was completely in the hands of the Orangemen.

“In the Waterside district a similar state of affairs existed. Attacks were made on the Nationalist districts of Cross Street, Irish Street and Chapel Road.

“A group of armed Orangemen took up positions at the head of King Street. about a hundred yards from the British Military Barracks. No attempts were made to remove them. Communications between Derry and the Waterside were carried out by expert morse and semaphore signallers.

“All this proves that a well thought out and highly organised plan was being carried out with the approval and backing of the British Government. It was not, as some people thought. the work of a number,of irresponsible youths.”

IRA mobilise

Headlines from the 'Derry Journal' in June of 1920.

Headlines from the 'Derry Journal' in June of 1920.

“After Saturday nights events a mobilisation of IRA took place in the Owen Roe Hall, off Bishop Street, on Sunday night, to consider means of protection for the Nationalist population.

“The Volunteers were lined up and all members who had any firearms with them or at home were told to take one step forward. About fifteen stood out, two having rifles and the rest revolvers, some of which were out of date and without any ammunition, thus proving beyond all shadow of doubt that the IRA had not expected the sudden outbreak of the Orangemen and were not prepared for it.

“After an investigation into the cause of the shooting and when all the facts were made known it was made clear that the Orangemen were being used by the British Government to start trouble between the different religious groups in the North of Ireland.

“The IRA were ordered to take stern measures against the armed Orangemen, but at the same time they were to protect the lives and property of all citizens, even the Unionists.

“This order was carried out to the best of their ability and on Monday morning about eleven o’clock Paddy Shiels, a Republican officer, who later that week became O.C. of the city, came marching up Waterloo Street with a group of armed men, numbering twelve. Three had rifles and the rest had revolvers. When they got to Butcher’s Gate each man fired a shot in the direction of the Diamond, where armed Orangemen had installed themselves. Believing they were being attacked by a large number of IRA. The Orangemen, without returning the fire, retreated up Bishop Street. over London Street and into Fountain Street which was their main stronghold. Paddy Shiels and his men, after traversing several of the principal streets without opposition, returned home.

“They had no sooner done so than the sniping started again. It is true that a large number of Protestants were ignorant of the cause of the attacks and showed their disapproval of the whole dastardly affair. In the meantime the Nationalist population had reached the end of their endurance and small sections were preparing to attack Unionist shops.

“The IRA, however, sent men armed with hurleys to guard all Unionist shops and people who would be likely to be attacked. In the Unionist districts no such protection was given to Nationalists. Many Catholics were driven from their homes and had to seek shelter with friends in other districts.

St. Columb’s College

At three o’clock on Monday evening St. Columb’s College was taken over by the IRA. Seamus Cavanagh and Paddy Shiels were in charge. A section of Cumann na mBan acted as first-aid nurses, and others took control of the catering. Orders had been issued for rifles, machine guns, revolvers, bombs and ammunition to be brought into the city.

“Men were sent to the various districts where the arms dumps were kept and by Tuesday morning the IRA had all the arms they required.

“Two machine guns were brought into play on the Orangemen who had thrown a barricade across Bishop Street connecting Abercorn Road with Barrack Street.”

Fierce fighting

“Fierce fighting was now taking place in the Nationalist area.

“Several houses were turned into armouries where supplies of guns and ammunition were handed cut after being thoroughly inspected. Johnny Fox’s, at Patrick Street, off Howard Street, was one of those houses.

“I witnessed the silencing of the snipers on Walker’s Pillar by a well-known Derryman who fired a few rounds from the corner of this house.

“The Fianna acted as dispatch carriers and brought ammunition to the various districts where shooting was in progress. “The fighting was now at its height and one British ex-soldier remarked that it reminded him of “Hill Sixty.”

“Prominent citizens had appealed earlier to the local authorities to have troops brought in to stop the fighting.

“They were told that troops would be sent from Dublin as soon as possible, but while the Orangemen had the upper hand no troops arrived.

“On Wednesday the IRA had driven the Orange snipers from most of their posts. When it became generally known that the IRA were planning to advance on all Unionist districts with a hand grenade attack on armed posts the local authorities immediately sent to Belfast and the Queen’s Regiment was dispatched within a few hours.

“In the meantime the IRA officers in St. Columb’s College were asked to call their attack off as they feared a lot of innocent people would be killed. After some time the officers agreed and decided to await events.

“Earlier in the week the Derry magistrates called for martial law to stop the fighting.”

Questions in Parliament

“In the British House of Commons Lord Robert Cecil said: “May I ask whether it is true as reported today that the magistrates of Derry have made serious complaint as to the management of the troops.”

“Mr Bonar Law, the British Premier, said he would not answer that. Replying to questions in Parliament regarding Derry, Mr Law stated: “We have received information from the County Inspector in Derry that nine civilians have been killed and from fifteen to twenty wounded. Brigadier-General Carter Campbell, the Commanding Officer, has gone from Belfast to Derry with full discretion to deal with the situation.

“ I was in communication with him today and he confirmed the view that they had an adequate force in the city.”

Buying of arms

“Paddy Hegarty, one of the officers of Derry IRA, received a special commission to buy arms and ammunition.

He formed a small group of people whom he could thoroughly trust. This group was to store, handle and deliver the supplies which Hegarty would receive. Those people carried out their work with such secrecy and skilful manoeuvring that the British forces never got an inkling of the vast quantities of ammunition and arms that passed through their hands into the rank and file of the Republican organisations.

“Paddy Hegarty was in touch with a man from Buncrana, Co. Donegal, named William Donaghy, known locally by the soubriquet of William Black as he was a blacksmith by trade.

“He came to Derry with a horse drawn van periodically and delivered large quantities of .303 ammunition to Hegarty’s tobacconist shop in Foyle Street.

“It was immediately repacked into parcels containing 500 rounds. Most of those parcels were taken by me to John (Corney) Doherty’s, Lower Road, James Lynch’s, McLaughlin and Leonard’s, William Street, and lots of other places where they remained until they were required.”