1920 - dozens dead on city streets

The new book by Pearse Lawlor. (0209MM05)
The new book by Pearse Lawlor. (0209MM05)

A new book launched this week examines the bitter sectarian fighting which erupted in Derry in the summer of 1920 - and which left dozens dead.

‘The Outrages 1920 - 1922’ by Pearse Lawlor looks at the War of Independence in the border countries and the role played by both the IRA and the Ulster Special Constabulary.

During 1918 and 1919 most of the fighting in the War of Independence took part in the South but by 1920 fighting broke out in the North, particularly in Derry.

The action in the North took on a different character than the incidents in the South. Instead of republican forces engaging British troops, many of the incidents in the North involved sectarian clashes.

The political system in Derry changed dramatically in 1918 following the Sinn Féin landslide in the elections of that year. It was the first time since the Siege of Derry that unionists lost control of Derry Corporation.

Catholic solicitor Hugh O’Doherty became the first nationalist mayor of Derry and said that he would not attend any function where there was likely to be a loyal toast. This caused anger among unionists and sectarian clashes were commonplace.

The new book records how the serious clashes began in April 1920 when republican prisoners were brought to Bishop Street jail. Loyalists would gather to jeer at the prisoners as they arrived and scuffles would often break out between rival groups of unionists and nationalists.

The clashes escalated and spread to the Bogside where a group threw stones at the Lecky Road RIC station. The RIC responded with gunfire, wounding at least six nationalists. The situation got worse when armed UVF men got involved and began firing into the Bogside from the City Walls.

The UVF also persuaded British soldiers stationed in the city to get involved and members of the Dorset regiment also fired into crowds of nationalists, which included women and children.

On May 15th nationalists attacked a British army patrol, leading to serious riots. During the riots, the UVF stormed the Bridge Street area where they came under fire from republicans, leading to a full scale gun battle which lasted four hours, during which an RIC special branch man, detective sergeant Denis Moroney, was killed. Many Catholics were evicted from their homes following the incident.

The same day, armed UVF members took over Carlisle Bridge, stopping motorists and pedestrians and asking them their religion. Any Catholics were assaulted.

Sporadic clashes continued throughout the month and on June 13th, following an incident in which a group of nationalists were attacked in Prehen Woods, serious rioting broke out in the city centre. On Friday June 18th many Catholic homes were attacked and the book quotes a report from the ‘Journal’ which said; “The streets had the appearance as if an avenging army had passed through them, so great was the destruction caused.” The UVF retained control of the bridge and Catholics had to use boats which often came under fire.

The following day the UVF opened fire on the Long Tower church and, as the IRA responded, the Dorset regiment were brought in and raked the Bogside with heavy machinegun fire, killing at least ten catholics. A curfew was announced and the next day was calm but the following day a Protestant, James Dobbin, was shot and killed by Hugh McFeely and Robert Doyle.

The UVF responded by launching a new attack on Catholic homes on Bridge Street. The IRA were out manned and out gunned and called in reinforcements from Donegal led by Peadar O’Donnell and began to take ground held by the UVF, most notably St Columb’s College on Bishop Street, killing an estimated 20 UVF men in the process.

This brought the worst of the UVF violence to an end and on June 23rd an extra 1,500 British troops were brought into the city. 40 people had been killed in the clashes during the turbulent summer.

‘The Outrages 1920-1922” by Pearse Lawlor is oublished by Mercier Press and is available in local bookshops.