Free Derry Corner: an enduring icon of the civil rights generation

1971... A British Army armoured vehicle passes Free Derry Corner in Derry's Bogside.
1971... A British Army armoured vehicle passes Free Derry Corner in Derry's Bogside.
  • In this article, first published a decade ago, EAMONN McCANN gives his take on the origins, influence and legacy of Free Derry Corner

The phrase, ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’, was first inscribed on the St. Columb’s Street gable in the early hours of January 5, 1969, in the midst of the most ferocious rioting Derry had experienced in decades.

The slogan was devised by myself, scrawled on the wall by Liam Hillen, then painted in proper lettering by John ‘Caker’ Casey.

Free Derry Corner - an icon of the civil rights era.

Free Derry Corner - an icon of the civil rights era.

The rioting had followed the arrival in Derry of a four-day civil rights march from Belfast organised by People’s Democracy. About 80 Queen’s students and a couple of car-loads of Derry Young Socialists set off from the City Hall at nine in the morning on New Year’s Day. The march wasn’t entirely popular with some within the civil rights movement. The red and red-and-black flags which some of the students insisted on carrying didn’t harmonise with the sombre emblems of the respectable tendency.

The march was attacked every few miles by groups associated with Ian Paisley’s chief sidekick of the time, Major Ronald Bunting. On the final day, at Burntollet Bridge, came an assault with clubs and bicycle chains by men marshalled by members of the B Specials and passively observed by the RUC contingent supposedly there to protect us.

Reaching Derry, blood-stained marchers addressed a crowd some hundreds strong in Guildhall Square. Rioting followed immediately and continued late into the night. At 2am, a mob of policemen came through Butchers Gate and surged into the Bogside shouting and singing: “Hey, hey, we’re the monkeys/And we’re going to monkey around/’Til we see your blood flowing/All along the ground.”

There was only one ‘phone in the Wells in those days, at McMenamin’s, number 37. Roused from his bed and seeing strangers in the street breaking windows and shouting, “Come out and fight,” Johnny McMenamin dialled 999 and had been put through to the Strand Road barracks before it struck him that this was ridiculous.

An inquiry under Lord Scarman later confirmed for the sceptical that all this had happened. (It is fair to record, too, that a number of RUC officers contacted individuals in the Bogside in the days afterwards to express embarrassment and annoyance at what had occurred. The men involved in the assaults had come from out of town, it was said. Maybe so.)

It was these events, combined with the death of Sammy Devenny after a police beating four months later, which led to the erection of barricades around the Bogside in August the same year and, so, to the Battle which ended with the arrival on the streets of British soldiers. Towards dawn on the morning of the 5th, somebody arrived in the area with a radio transmitter and presented it to Dermie McClenaghan and a couple of others: it was put to work from the top floor of the flats, broadcasting as Radio Free Derry.

The Wall and the wireless settled into the same name. The phrase “Free Derry” became commonplace. “You Are Now Entering...” wasn’t an original coinage. But it reflected something new that was busy being born around the world back then. The Derry riots were and continue to be seen in the context of Irish and, specifically, Northern Irish history, which is a reasonable and obvious perspective. But, then, as now, it wasn’t the only possible perspective, nor the most helpful towards an understanding of what was afoot.

Not so long ago, I watched one of those ‘roll back the years’ programmes focused – as many seem to be – on the late ‘60s. We had the music of The Doors and Phil Ochs providing a soundtrack to scenes of revolutionary mayhem from Prague, Paris, Saigon, Derry, Berlin, Chicago, etc, Soon after, I was talking to a group of pupils from a State school in Antrim. A few had watched the programme. None could see any connection, apart from the fact that there was violence involved, between Derry and the list of other hot-spots. Their only understanding of the events - they are by no means alone in this - was as an episode in an ancient conflict between Catholics and Protestants which was to continue up to the very recent past and maybe even into the future.

Free Derry Wall says different, asserts that there is another angle, another way of seeing the world. I suggested: “You are now entering Free Derry,” when Liam Hillen approached me with paint pot in hand looking for inspiration. It was an adaptation of a slogan outside a university college in California which had been occupied by the equivalents of the PD marchers from Queen’s: “You are now entering Free Berkeley”. (If another Derry dimension is needed, the great rationalist philosopher Berkeley had been Bishop of Derry for a period.) Hippies and yippies and socialists and anarchists had come together in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. There, too, they were regarded with suspicion by the mainstream student movement, told they were not in alignment with majority tradition.

The connection from Berkeley to the Bogside ran in a straight ideological line. I had mixed up the facts in my mind for a time and had edited Liam out until he accosted me in The Gweedore a few years ago and asked why I hadn’t given him due credit in a book which had touched on the topic. I confessed that I had no picture in my head of him there. “Do you not remember me coming across to you after I had started and asking whether there was one or two rs in ‘entering’”? The instant he said it, it all came back.

Every now and again, I hear complaints that the Wall is being put to improper use. Splattered in paint for this or that event, or shrouded in black or decorated with dinky pink shoes or whatever. Some see the edifice as sacred, want to keep it inviolate. But it’s not sacred. It’s a wall with writing on it. It only has significance insofar as it reflects and comments on the thoughts and the possibilities that swirl around it, and inspires new thoughts and sparks new possibilities. Insofar as it is an icon, it is an icon of the civil rights period specifically, before violent oppression constricted the imagination. It is symbol and substance of an era when the Bogside’s sense of freedom encompassed the earth, as it still can, and will again. It belongs to no faction or tendency but to the community - defined to embrace all who feel or want to be felt part of it.

Moves are long overdue to entrust the Wall to the people.