A silent and powerful witness to troubled times

Who shot JFK? Where was the first moon landing really filmed? Was Shergar put out to stud in Area 51? What was Leonardo doing to make her smile like that?

Who grabbed a paintbrush in the early hours of 5 January 1969 and painted the words You Are Now Entering Free Derry on the gable end of 33 Lecky Road, Bogside, Derry, Ireland?

All among the great mysteries of our age, but we can only solve them one at a time. So we should start with the most important.

The origins of the slogan You Are Now Entering Free Derry are not in dispute. Author and journalist Eamonn McCann, then one of the leaders of the civil rights uprising in Derry, 'stole' it from the free-speech campaign active around Berkeley University in California in the mid-'60s. Plagiarism at its best, and let's face it, a free-speech movement could hardly complain now, could it? During research for this book, many of those involved in that campaign were contacted and they all remember the slogan You Are Now Entering Free Berkeley, though, unfortunately, none of them could trace any photographs of it.

When the Derry version was painted is also not in doubt. On 4 January 1969, the People's Democracy march from Belfast - which had been attacked by Loyalists and off-duty B Specials all along its route and most famously and viciously at Burntollet Bridge - reached Derry. Rioting erupted as the marchers arrived in the city centre, bloodstained and battered, and the RUC and B Specials launched yet another attack on the Bogside. Lord Cameron later reported.

With regret, our investigations have led us to the unhesitating conclusion that on the night of 4/5 January, a number of policemen were guilty of misconduct which involved assault and battery, malicious damage to property in streets in the predominantly Catholic Bogside area, giving reasonable cause for apprehension of personal injury among other innocent inhabitants, and the use of provocative sectarian and political slogans.

When that attack was repulsed, groups of mainly young people stayed around throughout the night, waiting for another attack. One of those groups was waiting at the junction of the Lecky Road and St Columb's Street and, for want of something better to do, decided on a piece of graffiti. Eamonn McCann suggested a slogan, and the rest, as they say, was criminal damage to Corporation property.

But who held the smoking paintbrush? The first published accreditation came in Eamonn McCann's 'War and an Irish Town' in 1974. In it he wrote:

'John 'Caker' Casey, who by dint of his dab hand with a paintbrush was recognised as an expert wall-sloganeer, fetched out the tools of his trade and in a moment of inspiration wrote You Are Now Entering Free Derry on a gable end in St Columb's Street.'

This quickly became the accepted version of events, and Caker has been widely accepted as the originator ever since, as seen in the numerous references to him throughout this book. For the rest of his life, he was associated with creating the slogan, and after his death in September 2000, a memorial stone was placed beside Free Derry Wall, praising him for his famous achievement. The graffiti 'Caker Casey was here, January 5th 1969' was painted in red on the front of the Wall on the morning following his death.

The Derry Journal gave Caker the following obituary under the headline 'Death of Free Derry Painter':

'One of the Bogside's best-known characters, John 'Caker' Casey - the man responsible for first daubing the famous words You Are Now Entering Free Derry on the gable end of a house at Lecky Road - died suddenly this week at his home in Dove Gardens.

Mr Casey (54) died on Monday at his home which, incidentally, is just yards from historic Free Derry Corner. 'Caker' was aged twenty-three in 1969 when he made his stand for freedom and painted the now world-famous slogan on a gable wall at Fox's Corner. 'You Are Now Entering Free Derry' appeared on the Wall within hours of a People's Democracy march - ambushed by Loyalists at Burntollet - arriving in the city. At 2.00am the following Sunday morning, a group of drunken B Specials invaded the Bogside, wreaking havoc. After a meeting of Nationalists in Creggan Estate, a message was relayed to the RUC, ordering them to remove the B Specials from the Bogside or 5,000 men would force them out. The hated Specials were quickly pulled out.

Hours later, in the general hubbub of the Bogside, 'Caker' appeared, ladder and paint in hand, to daub in bold, black letters the words that would soon come to define the northern struggle . . .'

Note the Derry Journal's description of the slogan 'bold black letters' . . .

However, by this time, Eamonn McCann had already given a different version of events, naming a different painter of the original slogan. In the book 'A Sense of Place: Irish Lives, Irish Landscapes', McCann said in 2001:

'It's the single most important sentence I ever wrote. It was based on Berkeley. Now, with the connotations of 'Free Ireland', its significance seems different. But actually, it wasn't about looking back, it was about looking forward, looking out towards the rest of the world. It was a catch phrase for a cause, a slogan that captured a particular moment at the very start of what was to become the Troubles. The very minute it went up, it caught on.'

The article continued:

'Yet for years, he (McCann] could not remember who had actually painted the words on the Wall for him that night in the Bogside. Then, in 1974, when he was writing his book War and an Irish Town, he went in search of that person. John 'Caker' Casey's name kept coming up, and when asked by Eamonn, Caker said yes, he could remember painting it that night. And so he was written into history as the man who painted You Are Now Entering Free Derry.'

For years, says Eamonn McCann, Caker enjoyed a certain status in relation to the Wall. He was presented with a plaque to commemorate his involvement. His name even appears on those tea towels.

Then about five years ago, Eamonn was accosted by a man in a bar. 'Hey,' he said, 'I've a bone to pick with you, McCann. It wasn't Caker who painted the Wall that night, it was me.' Still, Eamonn had no recollection. Until the man told him something that jogged his memory. 'Don't you remember, Eamonn, I was painting the words and I came over and said to you, "Is it one or two 'r's in entering?"'

It was that little detail that brought the memory of it flooding back for Eamonn. Here was Liam, the man who really painted the Wall. Caker might have his plaques and his name on tea towels and the like, but he never actually painted the slogan. 'It's like the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,' laughs Eamonn. 'Print the legend.'

The Liam referred to in the article was Liam Hillen. Following one of the many published appeals for submissions for this book, friends of Liam contacted the authors and suggested we talk to him. He gave us the following:

The only thing I remember from that particular night was that there were about sixteen of us walking around the outskirts of the Bogside, carrying sticks and things like that - we thought we were going to do something about it if the Specials came back in. I remember it was a cold night. Somebody came back over and said to us - I think it was Bernadette Devlin - that the B Specials were coming back and to come in to the Bogside. So we came in and were standing around about Fox's Corner. We noticed this glow from this old building and we decided to walk up. We found out it was this gutted-out house and right in the middle of it was a fire. So we walked into it and there was a whole bunch of guys all standing around this fire, just keeping themselves warm. We were standing around there, it must have been two or three in the morning, heating ourselves up, and I said to Eamonn McCann, 'Jesus, I am fed up standing around here doing nothing.'

And Eamonn turned around and said, 'Why don't you go and paint a sign on that gable wall over there?' I asked what we should we paint up, and guys made suggestions like "We Demand Free Beer" and various other things. Then McCann turned round and said, 'Why don't you stick up "You are now entering Free Derry"?' I said, 'That's it, we'll stick that up,' and turned round and said, 'anybody know where I can get some paint and a brush?' And this wee fella standing on the right-hand side of me said his aunt lived up the street a bit. So we went and found a can of yellow paint and a can of blue paint, anything else didn't have much in it. I remembered that yellow and blue made green, so I mixed them together. I got this old hard brush and me and the wee boy walked back down to the corner and up to the gable wall. Big Danny Begley was about six foot tall so he leaned up against the wall with his hands interlocked and gave me a lift up. Chris Armstrong held the paint and I dipped into it.

I am dyslexic, by the way - I only found that out after I had the stroke. So that's probably why I had to turn to McCann and ask him how many 'r's are in entering. And that's how McCann always remembers me.

We ended up painting it with green paint on a dirty white background. I remember watching the six o'clock news the next day and there it was: You Are Now Entering Free Derry. I can't remember after that when it was whitewashed over and painted up properly.

I never really thought about what Free Derry Corner had become until years later. I moved to England in 1974 and stayed there until 1991, and to me it had always been just a piece of graffiti, it just happened. There was no ideology thing about it, no big statement or anything like that. What we were actually doing was just declaring: 'You are now entering Free Derry, pal, and this is us, and you are not in control.' We were just metaphorically sticking two fingers up at them, saying: 'You are not coming into our territory and beating us up whenever you feel like it.' It wasn't anything intellectual . . .

So, that is Liam's version of events, supported by Eamonn McCann, Bernadette McAliskey and others who were there that night. But unfortunately, Caker is no longer around to give his version of events, and there are many who will always believe that he was the original sloganeer, and some very reliable sources who claim to have seen him paint it. Also, his accreditation as the painter could not have come out of nowhere, and he must have had some strong connection to it for the legend to have lasted for so many years. Why else did his name keep coming up when Eamonn was searching for the original painter in 1974 when he was writing War and an Irish Town?

But there is one piece of evidence, other than the eyewitnesses, that could go some way to resolving this. The original slogan was painted in a hurry in the middle of the night. It was a handwritten slogan, not the careful block-lettered version that has become world famous. Early film footage, such as the 1969 RT programme John Hume's Derry, shows the slogan in the summer of 1969 as roughly scrawled in light paint on a dark background. This contradicts the Journal's description of Caker daubing the slogan in 'bold, black letters' on the gable end, but does come closer to Liam Hillen's account of lighter-coloured paint on a 'dirty, white background'. It was only after the Battle of the Bogside, in the run-up to Callaghan's visit to the Bogside, that the slogan was painted in the way it is now recognised, in the bold, black letters attributed to Caker by the Derry Journal.

So who did paint You Are Now Entering Free Derry first? If you ask me, and please don't, because I really don't have anything more to add to this, then, based on the information in this article, Liam Hillen was the man with the brush on 5 January 1969, but Caker Casey was the man with the black paint and the block letters in September 1969. Liam was the first to paint the words You Are Now Entering Free Derry; Caker was the first to paint the now famous, and familiar, lettering You Are Now Entering Free Derry. Any evidence to the contrary is welcome.

Adrian Kerr