Battle of the Bogside: The enemy is weakening. One more push, writes Eamonn McCann

Eamonn McCann in 1969.
Eamonn McCann in 1969.

The battle lasted for about forty-eight hours.

Barricades went up all around the area, open-air petrol bomb factories were established, dumpers hijacked from a building site were used to carry stones to the front.

Teenagers went on the roof of the block of high flats which dominates Rossville Street, the main entrance to the Bogside, and began lobbing petrol bombs at the police below.

This was a brilliant tactical move and, afterwards, there was no shortage of people claiming to have thought of it first.

As long as the lads stayed up there and as long as we managed to keep them supplied with petrol bombs, there was no way - short of shooting them off the roof - that the police could get past the high flats. Every time they tried, it rained petrol bombs...

Throughout the battle, all the doors in the area were open. Tea and sandwiches were constantly available on the pavement. The police started using tear gas after a few hours, which nonplussed us momentarily.

A call to the offices of the Red Mole in London - they seemed the most appropriate people - produced an antidote involving vinegar and a series of instructions for lessening the effects.

Soon there were buckets of water and vinegar stationed all over the battle zone. As an alternative, Molly Barr was dispensing free Vaseline from her shop under the high flats...

Four walkie-talkie radio sets were taken from a television crew. One was installed in Paddy Doherty’s house and the other three used to report back on the state of play in the battle.

Our possession of those instruments was later to be adduced as evidence of the massive, subversive conspiracy behind the fighting. When the batteries ran out after a few hours, the sets were given back to their owners...

Three first aid stations, manned by local doctors, nurses and the Knights of Malta, were treating those overcome by the gas or injured by missiles thrown by the police.

The radio transmitter, now operating from Eamon Melaugh’s house in Creggan, was pumping out republican music and exhortations to ‘keep the murderers out. Don’t weaken now. Make every stone and petrol bomb count’.

The police were making charge after charge up Rossville Street.

Phone calls were made to contacts in other areas begging them to get people on to the streets and draw off some of the police from Derry.

We appealed through Telefis Eireann for “every able-bodied man in Ireland who believes in freedom” to come to Derry and help us.

“We need you, we’ll feed you”.

In the main battle area, Rossville Street, the fighting was being led by Bernadette Devlin who had seemingly developed an immunity to tear gas and kept telling people, implausibly, that “it’s OK once you get a taste of it”.

On the morning of the 14th, we heard reports of fighting in Belfast, Coalisland, Dungannon, Armagh and other places; we took this as encouragement.

Other people were coming to our aid. The Tricolour and the Starry Plough were hoisted over the high flats. Two people were shot and wounded by the police in Great James’ Street.

A duplicated leaflet, entitled “Barricade Bulletin”, appeared: “The enemy is weakening. They have been on their feet two nights. One more push.”

The tear gas came in even greater quantities until it filled the air like smog. People were running through it, crouching, eyes closed, to hurl a petrol bomb at the police lines and then stagger back.

In William Street, a group breaking into Harrison’s garage to steal petrol was stopped by a priest who told them it was wrong.

“But, Father, we need the petrol”. “Well,” said the priest dubiously, “as long as you don’t take any more than you really need.” And, thus absolved in advance, they went at it with a will...

Then, looking through the haze of gas, past the police barriers, we saw the Specials moving into Waterloo Place. They were about to be thrown into the battle. Undoubtedly they would use guns.

“Have we guns?” people shouted at each other. We were about half way down William Street when the word came that British soldiers were marching across the bridge. Their appearance was clear proof that we had won the battle.

Eamon McCann in the Bogside in 1969.