“Who would have thought an ordinary wall on an ordinary house would become an icon around the globe and that people from all around the world would travel to see it?”
Those are the words of Frankie McMenamin, who along with others from across the community over the years, has contributed to ensuring Free Derry Corner remains as relevant today as it was back in 1969 when first Liam Hillen and then John ‘Caker Casey’ painted those iconic words on the gable end of 33 Lecky Road at Fox’s Corner.
The late Mr. Hillen is credited with having painted the words in green paint at the suggestion of Eamonn McCann. This was later replaced by the iconic black block letters painted by Caker Casey, and none of the men involved could have predicted that 50 years on Free Derry Corner, floodlit and surrounded as it is today by the other iconic murals of the Bogside Artists and other monuments, would become a globally recognised symbol of resistance, a mecca for tourists and a means of highlighting local, national and international causes.
Frankie McMenamin grew up in the area and said it is very much owned and protected by the local community.
“When I was a child we would have played in that house. It was empty at that time.
“People are proud of the Wall. People look after it and protect it if they see anybody doing any damage and people use it to put messages on, sometimes political, sometimes men’s issues or women’s issues, mental health, social issues. No individual or group owns the wall.
“For me it is an open canvas where people can put messages to draw attention to injustices and other issues they feel passionate about. Some people would have argued with me and others that we were putting graffiti on the Wall or damaging a monument but I see it as a canvas there for ordinary people like myself to get a message across, so when people take photos it highlights those messages.
“One of the things I am most proud of was when President Bush was coming to Ireland in 2004 myself and a fellow called Danny Brown put a message up on the Wall which under ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ stated: ‘Bush Not Welcome’, and that image went all around the world. We also put messages up welcoming Martin Luther King Junior when he came to visit a few years ago.”
As well as being a focal point of resistance, the Wall has also attracted its fair share of celebrities, with actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda both having visited the Wall on separate occasions.
In 2009, local men Jim Collins and Adrian Kerr published a book through Guildhall Press charting the history of the Wall and which related the thoughts and feelings of people about what it symbolised for them.
The slogan on the Wall was actually inspired by a sign McCann had seen during the American Civil Rights movement in California which stated ‘You Are Now Entering Free Berkeley.’
Speaking to the authors of the ‘Free Derry Wall’ 10 years ago, Liam Hillen, who passed away last month, said of that fateful day on January 4: “I remember it was a cold night. Somebody came back over and said to us - I think it was Bernadette Devlin - that the ‘B’ Specials were coming back to the Bogside... I said to Eamonn McCann, ‘Jesus, I am fed up standing around here doing nothing and Eamonn turned around and said, ‘Why don’t you go and paint a sign on that gable wall over there?’ I asked what we should paint, and guys made the suggestion ‘We Demand Free Beer’ and various other things.
“Then McCann turned around and said, ‘Why don’t you stick up ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry?’ I said, ‘That’s it, we’ll stick that up’.”
Caker Casey, who passed away in 2000, meanwhile, was known for being a dab hand with a paintbrush as well as an expert wall sloganeer, so he was the obvious choice for the iconic lettering that remains the classic image of Free Derry Wall.
His contribution was celebrated during his lifetime and after his death the message ‘Caker Casey was here, January 5, 1969’ was daubed on the Wall in tribute, while a memorial stone was also placed beside the Wall in celebration of his contribution.
Fifty years on, Free Derry Corner remains today a powerful symbol of a community united in solidarity with each other and with others facing injustice across the world, as well as a focal point for causes that matter to local people.