Two Derry sisters recall a precious childhood; living through the Troubles; and the key role cross-community activity brings to the new understandings in their city, as told to EAMON BAKER as part of the Diverse City project at the Holywell Trust.
So say Marie Coyle and her sister Margaret/Maggie as they recall their early days living in Walker’s Place or Walker’s Square.
They were Hutton then and Marie was surprised and delighted to find that amongst the celebrated and classic Bert Hardy Picture Post photos of Derry in the mid-fifties, there’s one that features her father Jamesie, her mother, Ellen and herself as a one-year old at an upstairs window in 7 Walker’s Place, the family home that for a while they shared with John Barr and family before the Barrs got a house in Creggan.
Says Marie: “We have so few photos of our father Jamesie. This was like stumbling upon a piece of lost treasure”.
Maggie fondly remembers Walker’s Square: “As well as my mother and father, there was Jim, Marie, myself, Kate and Peter. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the outside toilet, the tap outside, the tin bath, the big range.
“We had no roast chickens then, no steak, no chops. Instead down you went to McGrellis’s Pork Store in Foyle Street for pigs feet, knobs, necks, hocks or maybe up to Hutton’s on Bishop Street on a Saturday for “a roll-up”, the makings of your Saturday fry - rissoles, sausages, black and white pudding.
“Sunday dinner might have been homemade soup with boiling chicken, stew maybe the rest of the week or mince and peas. Sometimes we would get given bread and butter spread with sugar and be sent out on to the street to play. You had nothing really to stay in for or to come in for. There were no TVs around then nor Playstations, video games and the like.
“We might have tied a rope around a lamppost at Con Bonner’s and played swinging or played hopscotch with the aid of an empty polish tin, two balls up against the Derry Walls by Nailors Row. Maybe we’d play a shop down the bankin’ from the Walls, selling docking leafs as pretend vegetables and using empty tins for “selling” tins of peas or beans.”
Marie adds: “We hadn’t a record player then but one song I remember from around that time was “Kissing and a hugging with Fred.” We might not have fully understood the words, we were only bits of weans, but we certainly enjoyed singing them.
“We had nothing but everybody’s door was open. It was like we were all in this together. Our father sometimes worked over at the Lady of Lourdes Hall, helping with the rickety wheel. One Christmas, he arrived home with selection boxes, one for each of us - colourful boxes, chocabloc with different bars and of course chocolate buttons. Sometimes we had to take a flask of tea up to my daddy and the men who were helping out in Toner’s bookies opposite the gaol on Bishop Street.
“Hugh Toner who owned the bookies might give whoever brought up the tea a silvery sixpence. We used to fight lives aside to get to do that job.
“We used to get the chance of a trip away on the St Vincent de Paul bus, down to Donegal, maybe as far as Ballyliffen. We used to attend the Vincent de Paul children’s Christmas Party in their Bridge Street premises. We’d get a present and ice cream and jelly.
“Sometimes my mother or father would use Frankie Arthur’s pawnshop beside Bishop Street.
“Sometimes our father would take us down the quay and he’d fish for flukes or eels and bring them home to cook them. He was handy. I remember he made a sleigh and I can see me swooshing down Howard St. through the snow. I remember him making us a big wooden money box you actually could sit on.
“Sometimes our day’s outing was to the cemetery. Sometimes we went to the Daisy Field. I remember us making daisy chains there. Fahan beach I remember too and the ice cream... lovely.
“We loved the adventure of heading over to McConomy’s shed where ye’d see the Pearse Brother’s Memorial Band. Bobby Mc Conomy and his brother, Columba both played in the band. They had their mustardy skirts and their checked hats, their leader throwing the ‘big stick’, as we called it then, and the band all marching around the Square and Nailor’s Row, in a kind of military formation. This was a regular event for the band after a day away.
“We used to wander up to the Courthouse at the time of the 12th to see the bands I remember the roar of the Apprentice Boys Bands, their drums and flutes. We would rush up to Bishop Street to catch sight of the marchers or look over at them from up on the walls, their big gaudy banners catching the eye. And then there was Lundy’s Day in the dark of December. Lundy was like a big black giant overhanging the Walls from Walker’s Pillar with his big buttons, his big white eyes and his big wide hat like Napoleon’s. It was scary. They used to light him from the bottom up and the flames would soar up into the night sky.”
Both Marie and Maggie agree that theirs was a precious childhood - open doors, freedom to play, to go out and never come back in, until finally called.
Things changed though with the move to the Rossville Flats.
Marie continues the story: “Not long after our father died, in 1966, we moved to the High Flats, to 33, Mura Place. Times were tough. My mother was widowed. We all had lost our father.
“Mammy cleaned and for years did home help to make ends meet. She was the backbone of the family. Though the flats certainly looked the part, modern, multi-colourful blocks with a fancy bathroom, there was a price.
“They didn’t fill the gap created by leaving Walker’s Place. And pets weren’t allowed in the Flats. We had to give away our wee dog Trixie before we could move in. We gave it to Mary Rose who had the public house beside Arthur’s Pawnshop. That was heartbreaking.
“And then within a couple of years there was the Troubles - the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, literally, right on our doorstep.
“In 1966 though, I was just 12 years of age, Margaret 11. We were new fangled too with our new home. In the next couple of years we’d be hanging about outside Molly Barr’s at the ‘Threepenny Bits’ as we called them. We had become teenagers. A gang of us gathered for the craic, some from the Bogside, others from Creggan, the likes of Frankie Nixon, John Canning, Gerry “Mad-dog” Doherty, Hugh Gilmour, Tommy Meenan, David O’Carroll, Hugh Doherty, Gerry O’Hara, Pat Murray, Patricia Shields, Jean Deery, Margaret Dalzell, Margo Casey, my future husband, Gerry Coyle and his brother, Paddy.
“Sometimes too we wandered as far as Nelly and Jimmy Macari’s in William Street. Macari’s had a jukebox so that was the place to go. We were the ‘Central Gang’.
Subhead - ‘Turning sour’
“My mother bought a BSR record player and the first record I can remember was ‘Sugar Sugar’ by the Archies in 1969. But with the Battle of the Bogside raging outside our door and from our rooftops, things were turning sour. I remember the crash of the constant volleys of stones, the sight of petrol bombs being hurled, very little sleep, RUC smashing lights along our corridor and worst of all the tear gas. It was like someone rubbing red hot chillies into your nose, eyes and throat and there was simply no getting away. This was where we lived. We were stuck in the middle.
“Dana’s surprise triumph in the 1970 Eurovision brightened up our lives. I remember her singing from a window to the crowd gathered below in the car park. I remember her dad, Robert, being carried along on neighbours’ shoulders down our corridor.
“By the time of Bloody Sunday, Margaret was working in Welch Margetson’s, I was in Ben Sherman’s.”
Maggie takes up the story: “We were on the march and waiting at Free Derry Corner for the speeches to begin when I heard the cracks echoing and knew that these were not rubber bullets. Some man pulled us down, shouting: “That’s shooting, lie down for God’s sake ”. We ended up in some house. After the chaos was over,
“I remember that eerie, eerie silence. Our friend from the Threepenny Bits, Hugh Gilmour, was shot dead along with 12 more and many were wounded. Again that day, there was no getting away. Hugh Gilmour was shot right at the Rossville Street entrance to the flats, our entrance.
“Forever after that, over the days, weeks, months, there were riots, rubber bullets, shootings, bombings, tear gas, the whole works, stealing away our innocence.”
Fast forwarding to now, Marie and Maggie are involved in cross-community gatherings organised through the Creevagh Women’s Group of which they are both active members.
Says Marie: “The older I get, the more I realise how sacred life is. It has become important to me, to the two of us in fact, to be talking and listening to other people, people from different communities. If you close yourself off, you’re only going to listen to yourself.”
Maggie adds: “Opportunities exist now to make contact with the ‘other community’ that weren’t there back then for us. Some months ago, we went on a ‘good relations’ trip to the Somme.
“That was a powerful experience and we realise that it is the new understandings which we bring back with us that really matter.”
Both Marie and Maggie agree that it is really important to build on those new understandings here and now in our own city - maybe in order to recover the kind of innocence they both experienced in those childhood days in Walker’s Square.