‘Are you Sinead O'Connor? What are you doing in here?' Derry's Meenan Square was 'the real hub of the community’
Following on from the demolition of the Meenan Square shops back in 2021 to make way for a new development complex, former Dove House community worker Frankie McMenamin recalled his memories of growing up and working in the area.
I was born in 1964 and we lived in Howard Street. My mother and father were Margaret and Frankie McMenamin. We moved out of there in 1970 down to Shantallow, which was a new estate at that time. We stayed there for a year and a half, and my mother lost a wee newborn child of three months, Kevin Barry through cot death.
Because of that we moved to Creggan near the shops and we moved out of there after a year because of the gun battles. There was constant gun battles at the time. Motorman was happening around that time. Then we moved down to Gartan Square, number 24, in 1972 just a few weeks after Manus Deery was murdered by the British army.
When we moved into the street we made new friends, we became very good friends with the Deery family, who lived in Limewood Street, and the McGinleys, the McCallions, the Friels and the Dohertys. Among my best friends at that time were Jim Callion and his brother Pat and Damien Harkin, whose brother was killed in that area 1971.
We moved from Creggan to get away from all the gun battles but it was actually worse when we moved into Gartan Square. There were people shooting from the Derry Walls, shooting at the Derry Walls, gun battles constantly, hijacking and rioting. At that time
I was very young and didn’t really have any comprehension of what was going on. My brother Charlie would be down watching the riots and I remember my mother with us going to look for him. My father was in the bands.
The area where the Meenan Square shops was was known as ‘The Field’ as that is all it was at one time, and that’s what we called it. The Meenan Drive area was called after a Councillor Paddy Meenan. It was him that helped to get a playground and a park built there long before the shops were there, and also a football pitch. He died in 1939 and Meenan Drive was named for him in his honour.
The shops were completed in 1964 and the very first shop to open at Meenan Square was Hegarty’s Butchers. They were the main butchers and everybody went to them. You also had a launderette. I remember one of my sisters taking us down to the laundrette and they would take the washing down in pillow slips as at the time my mother didn’t have a proper washing machine like many other families. It was never empty in there and we always looked forward to going down to the laundrette. There was also an undertakers, a fish shop, a chemist, a post office and Willie Foy’s wee shop was legendary. There was also a bakery and a play school. The Bogside Inn was already there and a snooker hall and a club there.
The shops were a place where older people would have all met and for socialising. It was a real hub in the community. The shops were also the place were a lot of protests took place. People met outside the Bog Inn for marches, and the bar itself became legendary as almost every well known Republican would have set foot in there at one time or another.
The shops were the centre of community life. It was a big square and you had a roof covering the pedestrian area but they had to take that down later because it was getting smashed. Within the area around the shops around the Bog Inn, quite a few people lost their lives during the Troubles. A lot of people have a lot of good memories of the shops and a lot of bad memories.
The roofs would have been our playground. We would have climbed up and played tig and sometimes pretend to be soldiers and rioters. We were up there on the roof one time and the British army were raiding the Bog Inn and we would be throwing stones at the army. To us it was a bit of fun. To us it was like a big playground. When I was about 11/12 however around 1976 soldiers fired a shot down at us from the Derry Walls. That was extremely scary and people were shouting get down off the roof, get down off the roof. And I remember us being terrified and crying. A bullet hit a wall - there used to be flats there beside the Bog Inn and a bullet hit a wall in the flats.
Dove House began in February 1984 and that’s when we moved in and took over as a community centre. It was formerly an old people’s home, built around the same time as the shops and officially opened in 1968 that building.
In 1984 it was Mary Nelis, Gerry Toner and myself and we were just starting off. The main purpose was to teach adult literacy to young people.There was a lot of people couldn't spell or write well when they left school. I had been like that.
I became a community worker myself and in Dove House we employed 7-800 people down the years. I left in 1997 due to ill health. I don't think we realised when we moved in back in 1984 how significant Dove House would become to the community. Dove House also helped to get that area redeveloped in the late 1980s, the flats and the shops. There were flats in Dove Gardens and they were seriously damp, cold and they were badly run down, and Dove House started a campaign to get them done up, which we achieved. Later the homes would be in a bad state of repair again and they started to be badly run down and they decided to knock them down and build new houses. Dove House was also instrumental in securing that and the Gasyard development.
Then around the late 80s, early 90s they were making a film ‘Hush A Bye Baby' and it starred Cathy Casey, Sinead O'Connor and Emer McCourt. I wasn't much a drinker but I was sitting in the Bog Inn getting a couple of pints, myself and a friend called Robert Green and in walks this beautiful looking girl with a skinhead and everybody went quiet. It was Sinead O'Connor, she had to meet other members of the crew in the bar. A Derry fellow shouts up, ‘Are You Sinead O'Connor, what are you doing in here?', just carrying on, and she just smiled and sat down. My regret is not having a camera to get a few photos.
I have mixed emotions seeing the demolition. My brother Mickey died by suicide in 1985 and the Bog Inn was the last place he was seen in. That connection is there. In another way seeing it getting knocked down is a good thing as it became a playground for vandalism and Dove House will be getting new premises, a new resource centre and youth club there. There will be new shops and a new bar and flats too. I just hoped they are well looked after and I hope the flats don't end up a dumping ground for problem tenants.
This is the area where young people gathered stuff for bonfires. Bonfires have been controversial and there have been issues but I support the young people in having a bonfire every year as long as they are not burning tyres and I think it would be good if they had somewhere they could do it regularly.
*This article is dedicated to my late friend Robert Green and the late Peace Maker John Hume. I'd also like to commend (the late) Donnacha and those at Dove House over the years for all the great work they have done for local people. I don't think we realised when we movedinbackin 1984 how significant Dove House would become The Bogside Inn.
(Photos by Frankie McMenamin)
**This article was originally published in print in the Derry Journal in the summer of 2021.