Free Derry Wall painter Liam Hillen passes away

January 1969... The original slogan as painted by Liam Hillen.
January 1969... The original slogan as painted by Liam Hillen.

Liam Hillen, the first person to paint the famous slogan, ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’, on a gable wall in the Bogside, has died.

Liam, aged 69, passed away on Christmas Day.

Liam Hillen pictured at Free Derry Corner a number of years ago. (0310C20)

Liam Hillen pictured at Free Derry Corner a number of years ago. (0310C20)

Born in the Bogside and reared in Creggan, Liam recalled his landmark role in local history when he spoke to the ‘Derry Journal’ in a wide-ranging interview back in 2008.

Liam revealed: “It was three o’clock in the morning on January 5, 1969 [just hours after the repeatedly-attacked People’s Democracy march had arrived in Derry]. Somebody told us we had to watch out because the B-Specials were apparently ready to move into the Bogside. We were walking towards Fox’s Corner and I happened to see this house with a light coming from the living room.

“Myself, Eamonn McCann and a few others went inside to get a bit of a heat. I said to Eamonn: ‘Do you know something, I am fed up standing around doing nothing’.He said to me, ‘why don’t you put a slogan up on the wall’. A few suggestions included, ‘We Demand Free Beer’ and ‘RUC Out’. Eamonn then said: ‘Why don’t you write: you are now entering Free Derry. There was a young boy with us and he told us that his granny lived nearby so off we went and got some paint.

“When we came back, I remember saying to McCann, ‘Is there one or two rs in entering?’ That was when I painted, ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ on the gable end. It was perfect.

“I think it was a few months later that the Defence Association commissioned ‘Caker’ Casey to paint over my slogan but I was the first person to write the words on the wall.”

Eamonn McCann was among those to pay tribute to Mr Hillen.

He said: “Liam made a significant contribution to the way the civil rights period is remembered today.

“Liam is the man who first wrote, “You Are Now Entering Free Derry”, on a gable wall in the Bogside, early on the morning of January 5, 1969. I spoke last week to some of those still around about what sort of ceremony or gathering at Free Derry Wall would be suitable for marking the 50th anniversary. But it wasn’t to be.

“I feel it important to acknowledge Liam’s role because, on account of a misunderstanding, I failed to do so when my book, ‘War And An Irish Town’, was first issued in 1974. The book was republished just a month ago. A preface to the new edition tries to set the record straight:

“Sometimes inaccuracies which seemed too trivial to matter turn out to matter very much to somebody. I attributed the writing on a gable wall of the slogan, ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’, to Bogside activist ‘Caker Casey’. A few years ago, I was approached in a city centre pub by a man saying, ‘I have a bone to pick with you, McCann.’ He introduced himself as Liam Hillen. It was he who had inscribed the slogan, he insisted. ‘Do you not remember me coming over to you and asking, “Is there one r or two rs in entering?” In a flash, the memory came back.

“Free Derry Wall has assumed iconic status in the meantime, reproduced on hundreds of artefacts and souvenir items, from dish-cloths to designer garments to pieces of art and political banners. It’s right that Liam’s role should be acknowledged.”