Free Derry Corner ‘helped shape history’

Free Derry corner
Free Derry corner

One of Derry’s most iconic landmarks has made it into a new book documenting the 100 places that have most shaped modern Britain.

Free Derry Corner is listed in the new work by BBC History Magazine editor Dave Musgrove, who asked 100 of the UK’s most noted historians to each nominate a site they believe to be the most important in shaping history.

Most of the sites nominated are well known British landmarks - such as Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, the Tower of London.

But other noted sites selected for the book include the Scottish island of Iona, Sutton Hoo, Liverpool’s Cavern Club and the town of Tolpuddle, from which a group of farmers were sent to Australia for discussing forming a union.

Free Derry Corner was nominated by Claire Fitzpatrick, history lecturer at Plymouth University.

She says the gable end “stands witness to the long shadow of the wars of religion.”

“In a place like Northern Ireland which is big on commemoration, it was symbolic to write on that Free Derry wall.

Iconic response

“This is a nationalist area and they felt locked out of the city, so Free Derry Corner is the ironic response to the city walls.

“It’s an important part of British history within the context of British identity.”

The slogan ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ first appeared during an uneasy period when the Civil Rights movement was holding massive rallies to protest against discrimination but before the British Army was sent to Northern Ireland.

The inspiration for the world famous slogan originally came from a wall painted as part of the free speech campaign during a sit-in at Berkeley, California, in the early 1960s which stated: ‘You Are Now Entering Free Berkeley’.

It was painted in Derry to mark the no-go area of the Bogside, Brandywell, Creggan, Bishop Street and Foyle Road, where armed forces were not allowed.

The original ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ slogan was just a handwritten scrawl until August or September 1969, when it was carefully painted in its more recognisable form for the visit by British Home Secretary James Callaghan to the area following the Battle of the Bogside.

Local journalist and activist Eamonn McCann came up with the slogan itself after hearing about the original one painted in Berkeley, and as local legend would have it, fellow Bogsider John ‘Caker’ Casey was then the first person to apply the uniform lettering we know today.

The gable end originally stood at 33 Lecky Road. It has become one of the North’s most iconic symbols of defiance.

‘100 Places That Made Britain’ is published by BBC Books on June 2.

The Belfast shipyard where the doomed liner Titanic was built also features in the new book.