Battle of the Bogside: When rumour ran riot on the streets of the Bogside, an account by the late Charlie Haslett

The late Charlie Haslett.
The late Charlie Haslett.

Rumour ran riot on the battle-scarred streets of the Bogside on the afternoon of August 14, 1969, recalled Charlie Haslett.

There were many among the large crowd of civilians which had faced down the police for the best part of two days who confidently predicted that units of the Irish Army would be in the city before the evening was out.

Throughout the day, bitter clashes between gangs of youths and clearly exhausted and demoralised RUC men continued to rage. And the talk was all about the possibility of a cross-border incursion by Irish soldiers. It was that sort of day.

The rumours were fuelled, of course, by the fact that units of the Irish Army had been ordered to the border to establish field hospitals to treat the injured. And that move followed an Irish government statement that they could “no longer stand by” as the situation on the streets of Derry continued to worsen.

The air of tension which had been evident in the city well in advance of the Apprentice Boys’ parade generated a gut feeling for many that the occasion would not pass without trouble. And so it turned out.

From Tuesday afternoon, the Bogside was the scene of vicious, nonstop rioting and, by Thursday, the situation had deteriorated to the point at which it was evident that intervention of some sort was an absolute necessity if order was to be restored.

That afternoon, people in the Diamond watched in amazement as a detachment of ‘B’ Specials marched down Bishop Street heading towards the Bogside armed with a variety of cudgels - one of them, I remember, carried a pickaxe handle. Some had dustbin lids for protection and others wore WWII issue ARP steel helmets.

I watched this in the company of a then well-known Protestant businessman and I recall his only comment: “My God, this is the end.” That, for me, said it all.

Later that day, Donegal Fine Gael Deputy Paddy Harte visited the Journal office. I had just returned from the Bogside and Paddy, it appeared, was anxious to see for himself what was happening on the ground. There followed a discussion as to how he could do so safely.

As I was due to return to the area, I suggested that he could accompany me. We took the relatively safe route via the Diamond and Fahan Street to upper William Street and, as we made our way towards the Rossville Street junction, which had been the cockpit of the battle since the first stone was thrown, we could see a large crowd gathered at the intersection facing an equally strong force of police. It was then apparent that a stalemate of sorts had developed although it was clear it could only be of a temporary nature.

It was an extremely tense and dangerous situation and I could see that Paddy was shocked by what he saw. He then came up with a suggestion which he thought might help ease the situation. He attempted to push his way through the crowd, suggesting that he might be able to persuade the RUC officer in charge to withdraw his men.

It was a spontaneous reaction motivated only by a desire to help but I believed it would have been hazardous in the extreme. Such a move would have been regarded as aggressive, particularly if others in the crowd had elected to follow him, and would have been met with forceful retaliation.

I think I told him something like, having brought him into the area fit and healthy, I intended to take him out the same way. I was able to persuade him there was little anyone could do in the circumstances and we returned to the Journal office. Afterwards, I learned that he had made a phone call to Dublin.

British troops arrived at the bottom of William Street after 5pm that same afternoon. The battle was over, or so we thought.

Few of those who experienced the trauma of that period were left untouched by it. On a personal note, I can still remember a frantic effort to evacuate my mother from her home in Little James’ Street on the afternoon of the 12th.

The house was, within hours, to end up in a no-man’s land between police and the crowds. The following morning I returned to find it had been gutted by fire during the night - one of the first of a number of properties in the area to be torched during the battle.