Derry Journal archives: 1979 Christmas bomb attack leaves pensioners homeless

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At around 10.30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 5th, 1979, an IRA bomb exploded on Spencer Road devastating the business centre of the Waterside. Dozens of businesses were affected as they geared up for the Christmas rush and the attack also left residents of the street homeless.

On Friday, December 7, the story of the devastation made the front page of the ‘Journal’ and the paper stated that “extensive structural damage” was caused to both business and private dwellings, four people were injured and the “Christmas hopes of many traders had been left in ruins.”

The huge van bomb that caused the wreckage was estimated to be between 250-300 lbs in size.

The ‘Journal’ said: “The bomb exploded shortly after 10.30 pm and in a preliminary report the police said it caused extensive structural damage to 51 premises in the Spencer Road and Duke Street area, including private homes. Damage was caused mostly to windows and roofs.”

“Twelve of the shops and two houses were so extensively damaged, it is now feared they may have to be demolished. Water and gas supplies to the area were also affected. Police were warned that a bomb had been left in the area in a number of calls made at approximately 9.20 pm on Wednesday that a bomb in a van had been left near the post office in Spencer Road. The area was cleared and the bomb exploded at 10.38 pm after the army fired several shots at the van.”

A hi-jacked Radio Rentals van was used for the attack. It had been taken earlier in the Gobnascale area of the Waterside and driven with the bomb on board to Spencer Road and abandoned shortly after 9 pm.

The ‘Journal’ continued: “Four people were treated in Altnagelvin Hospital after the explosion. Their injuries were not serious and two of them were detained overnight for shock. Police have appealed for the public to help in their enquiries into the bombing.

“Among those now homeless as a result of the bomb are two sisters, Misses Sarah and Bridget Bradley who lived at 44 Spencer Road, next door to the Post Office. Both ladies are in their eighties and their home is so extensively damaged, it is almost certain it will be demolished.

“The Bradley sisters were already in bed when they received the warning about the bomb and refused to leave their home until they knew their pet cat was safe. As they have no relatives in the city, they waited in a neighbour’s house until they believed, what was only a hoax, was over.

“When the bomb exploded, the house was so badly damaged that they could not return. They spent the night at Good Shepherd Convent and St. Vincent de Paul are now making arrangements for to provide them with alternative accommodation.

“The Misses Bradley said that after the inspection of the damage caused to their possessions that the only two objects not broken were statutes of the Scared Heart and Our Blessed Lady.

“Also homeless as a result of the bomb attack are Mr. and Mrs. Jackie Cassidy, whose home was at 48 Spencer Road. Mrs. Cassidy is at present in St Columb’s Hospital and she first heard about the bomb over the radio. Her husband was in the house by himself when he received the warning about the bomb.

“He spent yesterday trying to salvage the few things that remained undamaged in the house. For the time being until alternative accommodation can be arranged he will be staying with his daughter at Newbuildings.

“This is the fourth year in succession that Derry’s business community has been dealt a severe blow in the form of a bomb attack at a time when traders were preparing for Christmas.

“Most shops in the area have been so badly wrecked by the bomb that traders plans to make this a Christmas to remember in the Waterside have now been ruined.”

Condemnation of the attack followed quickly with Derry’s Mayor, SDLP Councillor Pat Devine telling the ‘Journal’: “A bombing of our city is always to be deplored at anytime, in any place, but this particularly savage and cynical bombing at Christmas time, of a shopping area that was establishing itself in the community will certainly help to isolate and eventually defeat the campaign that has persecuted Derry for so long.

“Our business community is to be congratulated for its resilience and determination in the face of such savagery. Elderly people who have lost their homes at Christmas time will have the total support and sympathy of everybody. The small minded people who perpetuate misery have no place to go either in terms of political progress or public support.”

Another SDLP man was also scathing in his response to the attack and registered his “disgust”.

Councillor Joe Fegan said: “The state that it has left Spencer Road in is beyond words. I am totally disgusted with the irresponsible action of the people who caused the explosion. The damage is widespread for 300-400 yards in Spencer Road. It put some elderly people into shock and caused young children to wake up out of their sleep in a state of hysteria. I thought things were settling down and people were looking forward to Christmas and plans to brighten up Spencer Road.”

Unionist Councillor Bertie Faulkner said the attack was another example of the “bankrupt policy of the Provisional IRA.”

He continued: “If the bombers could see the aftermath of suffering and distress to elderly people in the Spencer Road area, they might think again about what they are doing. I ask the Provisional IRA how they can justify this type of action on fellow citizens.”

Mr. Faulkner also paid tribute to Housing Executive staff and Department of Health and Social Services staff for their work in making temporary repairs and providing temporary accommodation for those who were made homeless.

The Post Office also released a statement asking those who normally used the Spencer Road premises to use the main office at Custom House Street, or if that was not possible to avail of the other sub Post Office’s around the city. Meanwhile, the city’s Chamber of Trade called a special meeting of traders in the Spencer Road area to discuss the situation.