Battle of the Bogside: What had begun as a riot soon became a popular insurrection, an analysis by the late Paddy 'Bogside' Doherty

The late Paddy 'Bogside' Doherty
The late Paddy 'Bogside' Doherty

The marchers hurled abuse across the barricades at the Bogsiders who instantly reciprocated. Stones soon replaced insults, and the battle began.

The marchers hurled abuse across the barricades at the Bogsiders who instantly reciprocated. Stones soon replaced insults, and the battle began.

The policemen behind their vehicles and steel shields held their ground for over an hour. Reinforcements arrived and they prepared to charge. As the engines of armoured vehicles revved up, the Bogsiders cheered. All their planning would not be in vain: the RUC was about to take the bait.

Before the barricades had been fully secured, the heavy police vehicles smashed their way into the Bogside, leaving gaps which the defenders had trouble closing. I watched the policemen pour through on foot to face petrol bombs. A direct hit set a policeman’s uniform on fire. He screamed as his comrades rolled him on the ground to put out the flames.

At the request of a priest, I organised a mini truce with the police in order to evacuate old people from their homes as petrol bombs landed on the roofs.

The young Bogsiders stood back to allow an older, more docile generation to pass through. Soon the police resumed the battle, during which a tall officer who commanded them would earn a medal for leading his men against the enemies of the Queen.

The maisonettes which had replaced the hotchpotch of houses in Rossville Street in the 1960s were four storeys high. The buildings, at right angles to the main barricade, were a perfect spot from which to launch an attack on the police as they stormed through.

The police fought foot by foot to surround the buildings and cut off the supply of petrol bombs to the roof. Isolated and without weapons or access to the houses below, the petrol bombers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the policemen. Seeing the plight of the young men on the roof, people on the ground redoubled their efforts to clear space for their retreat.

Having only enjoyed limited success on the roofs of the maisonettes, the young men made for the roof of the ten-storey block of flats built to keep a swelling population within the Bogside. From the top of this symbol of gerrymandering, they stopped the advance of the RUC into the Bogside.

People emptied out of St Eugene’s Cathedral onto the brick-strewn streets after evening devotions, just in time to witness a joint charge into the Bogside by the police and loyalist civilians. Father Anthony Mulvey angrily ordered an officer to get his men out or “I will lead the people against you”. I addressed the crowd in front of the Cathedral gate: “Will you do nothing to help?” ‘What can we do? We have no weapons,” they replied.

“Break up the footpaths,” I ordered. Showers of broken paving stones forced the armoured policemen to seek cover... What had begun as a riot now assumed the complexion of a popular insurrection.

If the police were hoping that the rioting would peter out in the early hours of the morning, as it had often done in the past, they were disappointed.

Dawn broke to reveal a tricolour flapping in the breeze on the high flats above scenes of devastation. Two square miles of streets were littered with debris of every kind. Young and old filled milk bottles from an apparently inexhaustible supply of petrol.

The police, their ranks depleted by injuries, held their ground beyond the range of the petrol bombers and fired their CS gas guns at everything that moved.

There was fighting at every barricaded entrance to the Bogside but it was heaviest in William Street.

The petrol bombs were taking a heavy toll on the buildings separating the Bogside from the police station at Strand Road... The flames from the burning buildings in William Street licked the sky, illuminating the city walls.