Commemoration events will be held this Sunday to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Derry IRA man John Starrs, who was shot dead by the British army in 1972.
He was one of eight IRA members from Derry shot dead by British soldiers that year - a year which saw the highest death toll of the Troubles. A Derry member of Na Fianna Éireann was also shot dead in January 1972. His death came just two months after the deaths of IRA members Colm Keenan and Eugene McGillan, whose anniversaries were also commemorated recently.
At the time John Starrs was killed, Free Derry was still in existence with large areas of the Bogside, Brandywell and Creggan behind barricades.
Armed members of the IRA regularly patrolled the barricades and manned checkpoints leading into the area.
In the weeks and months after Bloody Sunday, many young men and women from Derry joined the IRA, incensed by the massacre carried out by the British army’s parachute regiment.
John Starrs was one of these young people. He was born in Hamilton Street in the Brandywell where he lived with his parents and brothers.
At the time, the 19 year-old was not living in Derry and was a member of the Irish army. In fact the Brandywell man was a trained marksman.
When he heard about what happened in Derry on Bloody Sunday, John decided to return to Derry and join the Republican Movement and became a member of ‘B’ company of the 1st Battalion of the IRA’s Derry brigade.
His military training was quickly utilised by the IRA in Derry and he was soon on ‘active service’ on the streets of the city.
When he was killed, John was part of a four-man unit operating on the edge of the Bogside looking for British soldiers.
The group were ‘floating’ - an IRA term for volunteers travelling around looking for targets - and were armed with two .303 bolt action rifles, a Garrand rifle, and a sterling sub-machine gun.
They decided to spilt up and John and another volunteer, Gerry Doherty, went to Chamberlain Street. The pair were preparing their weapons close to the junction of Chamberlain Street and William Street when British soldiers, who were hiding on the top floor of a nearby building, opened fire on them.
John was hit in the chest while Gerry was shot in the arm. Despite the hail of bullets, passers-by intervened and dragged Gerry to safety but John was already dead. The civilians who came to their aid also managed to recover their weapons and get them out of the area.
Rioting broke out in the area shortly after the shooting and the building from which the soldiers opened fire from set on fire by the crowd.
The Derry Command of the Provisional IRA released a statement after the shooting describing the 19 year -old as “a very fine volunteer”.
“We hope that his death will inspire the people of Free Derry to continue the fight for Irish freedom and help to realise the dreams of the dead youth,” the IRA said.
The statement also quoted the words of Patrick Pearse; “They shall be spoken of among our people and generations shall remember them and call them blessed.”
More than 5,000 people attended John’s funeral, one of the largest held in Derry at the time, and he was buried will full IRA honours.
The funeral cortege included members of the Derry Command Staff of the Provisional IRA and all five city IRA companies were represented. Girls from Cumann na mBann, dressed in black, and boys from Na Fianna Éireann, also in uniform, marched behind the coffin.
IRA members in uniform fired three volleys of .303 shots over the grave in the City Cemetery.
Veteran Derry republican Sean Keenan, who had just been released from Long Kesh, delivered the oration at the grave side.
Mr Keenan’s son, Colm, also an IRA volunteer, had been shot dead by the British army two months previously.
“Another freedom fighter is dead. Another soldier of the Republican Army has passed on. Another name has been added to the long list of British army victims,” he said.
“In a short time a headstone will be erected on this spot stating that vol. John Starrs was killed in action on May 13 but it will not tell of the gallantry of John Starrs.
“It will not tell of how on Bloody Sunday he left the Free State army and walked home to join in the struggle for freedom, independence, and peace.
“John Starrs realised. perhaps better than most, that a true, lasting and just peace can only be brought about by the removal of the British army from the streets of this country. Not only did he believe this, but he died endeavouring to achieve it,” Mr Keenan said.
The veteran republican also called on the people of Derry “to join together to rid this land of ours of these tyrants, terrorists and torturers so that the aspirations of our gallant dead can be realised”.
To mark the anniversary of his death, a number of events have been organised on Sunday evening.
A commemoration will be held at the Bogside and Brandywell republican monument at Lecky Road (opposite the Gasyard Centre) at 7pm which will be attended by the Starrs family, as well as friends and former comrades of the teenager.
This will be followed by an anniversary function in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, Great James’ Street, immediately after the 7.30pm organised by the Starrs family.