Duke Street: just an ordinary place on the brink of notoriety, infamy and disgrace

BUSY STREET . . . . Duke Street looking south towards Craigavon Bridge. This photo wasa taken in the early 1960s.
BUSY STREET . . . . Duke Street looking south towards Craigavon Bridge. This photo wasa taken in the early 1960s.

This bustling Waterside street, which hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons on October 5, 1968, was once-upon-a-time the heartbeat of the district.

In less than six months’ time, Derry’s Duke Street is expected to hog the news headlines when the 50th anniversary of a Civil Rights Protest which many argue signalled the start of the modern day ‘Troubles’ in NI takes place.

EARLY 1960s . . . . Duke Street looking north towards Distillery Brae.

EARLY 1960s . . . . Duke Street looking north towards Distillery Brae.

It was on that day that the RUC used batons and water cannon to break up a Civil Rights march making its way along the narrow Waterside street.

The march, organised with the support of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), was held in protest at discrimination against the majority nationalist population in Derry by the unionist-controlled local authority.

Violent skirmishes broke out and very quickly the street was filled with police wielding batons against men, women and children.

Reports of the rioting and the brutal way in which it was suppressed by police were broadcast around the world, provoking widespread condemnation and outraging nationalists.

It was the day the ‘Troubles’ began.

Duke Street has been coupled to the 1968 disturbances for the past 50 years - much like Martin Luther King’s protest in Selma, anti-Vietnam demonstrations from San Francisco to Sydney, and other ‘quiet revolutions’ around the world.

However, the history of the street prior to 1968 tells a story of a proud, bustling community populated by shirt factories, blacksmiths, drapers, Italian ice-cream vendors, gypsy sideshows and American GIs.

In this article, the ‘Journal’ takes a quick trip down memory lane to have a look at life in the street in the 1940s and 1950s - just a few years before the bloody events of October 1968 were beamed onto television screens in homes across the world.

Well-known Derry man, John ‘Red Doran’, gives a fascinating insight into life on Duke Street in his wonderful memoir, ‘Red Doran: The Story of a Derry man’ (1996).

‘Red’, who was born and reared within yards of Duke Street, recalls it as the “busiest street in the Waterside.”

He also remembers some of the families, businesses and characters who populated the street which stretched from the LMS railway station to the junction of Craigavon Bridge and Spencer Road.

Orlando Caffola’s ice-cream parlour was, says Red, a magnet for young children.

“However, as small children, we were frightened of going in there because of the full-size stuffed brown bear holding a light in its upturned paw and grinning at us with huge fangs.”

Next door to Cafollas, says ‘Red’, was located “heaven” - Morrison’s drapery and toy shop.

“Every year, at Christmas, they put on their toy display and, with all the lights on, it was just fabulous. I took my stand along with the rest of the gang, with arms outstretched to claim all within as mine. “

“It was a great shop and I loved going in even to ask the time - any excuse was better than none - and watch the overhead rail that took the money and receipts from the counter to the office. It worked like a slingshot.”

Facing Morrison’s was an empty lot about two or three houses wide called the “Bugga Boo” and, according to Red, gypsies with sideshows often took up temporary residence there.

“For a small charge, you could see their monkeys, Russian ducks, exotic birds and snakes.”

Eaton’s Bakery was also located on Duke Street and, according to Red, it would “do your heart good” to go there in the morning and smell the aroma of fresh baked bread.

Further up Duke Street, towards Craigavon Bridge, was Cafolla’s fish and chip parlour and one of the attractions there, says Red, was a slot machine that could be fixed with the “right touch”.

Dan Marcini ran the place and Red says he was exactly what you would see nowadays advertising ravioli - complete with a waxed moustache and a cook’s hat, “flat and floppy on top.”

Another local writer who has written fondly of the Duke Street of yesteryear is Moira Doran who penned an article for the ‘Waterside Voices’ magazine in 2017.

The street, she says, was where she was brought up and was the most popular in the Waterside.

There were no less than 26 pubs on the street,said Moira. She was, she admits, sorry to leave the area when it was redeveloped.

Red Doran probably summed it up best when he said: “Thanks to the devil planners, it’s almost all gone now, making way for a wider highway.

“Nothing lives forever.”