On this Day in 1969: Battle of the Bogside

RUC riot squad in action during the Battle of the Bogside.
RUC riot squad in action during the Battle of the Bogside.

The article below was first published on derryjournal.com on Friday 23 April 2010

The following extract from Sean McMahon’s book, “Battles Fought on Irish Soil”, gives a clear account of the Battle of the Bogside, an encounter that the Derry-born author considers of tremendous importance in modern Irish history. It was an event that brought British soldiers on to the streets of Derry - where they stayed for nearly forty years.

The battle of the Bogside in Derry represented the climax of the civil rights movement in Ulster and, effectively, the beginnings of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ as they were euphemistically called.

The clashes began about 2.30 in the afternoon of 12 August during the annual march of the Apprentice Boys to celebrate the lifting of the siege – the ‘Relief of Derry’ – 280 years earlier.

The Bogside is a nationalist area lying to the west of the city walls and close to the commercial centre. Since the RUC’s (Royal Ulster Constabulary) attack on the civil rights march on 5 October the previous year, tension in the city had been growing.

A violent irruption by the RUC on 5 January had led to riots and the concept of ‘Free Derry’ that was painted on a gable wall presaged the ‘no-go’ area that the Bogside was to become.

Crash barriers set up to separate the Apprentice Boys marchers and their supporters from nationalist protesters became rallying points for both sides and, when coins were thrown at the Apprentice Boys, trouble was inevitable.

A hail of missiles greeted even the nationalist community leaders, John Hume, Eddie McAteer and Ivan Cooper, who had been pleading for dispersal; Cooper was hit on the head.

The first petrol bomb was thrown at 4.40pm, by which time the Apprentice Boys had begun to leave the city and the serious rioting started. A loyalist mob from the Waterside took part, fronted by and protected by the RUC.

Even they, already damned as a sectarian force, were alarmed at the intensity of the violence and, protected by riot shields, tried to advance along Rossville Street, firing the missiles back at the largely young crowd.

RUC lines close to the Rossville Flats during the Battle of the Bogside. (1408MM15)

RUC lines close to the Rossville Flats during the Battle of the Bogside. (1408MM15)

The eleven-storey block of Rossville flats that towered over the street gave the rioters a decided edge and the RUC were at a corresponding disadvantage. They made no attempt, however, to prevent the damage to property carried out by the crowd of loyalists well behind them.

From 11.00pm, William Street, Rossville Street and the street actually known as the Bogside filled up with CS gas. A volunteer group of paramedics, the Knights of Malta, attended to those suffering the effects of gas and others hurt by missiles and mismanaged petrol bombs.

Old gasmasks issued during the Second World War were rooted out of cupboards and participants claimed that handkerchiefs soaked in vinegar acted quite well as filters. They gave no protection to the eyes, however, and since the night and the following day were heavy and calm without a breath of wind the gas was not easily dispersed. The police began to use live rounds and two men behind the barricade in Rossville Street were injured

Local doctors and nurses organised emergency hospitals. During the night several buildings were set on fire, with Stevenson’s bakery and Richards’s shirt factory gutted.

Among the significant figures on the nationalist side was Bernadette Devlin a member of the People’s Democracy who had been injured in a previous protest march at Burntollet Bridge and who acted as a kind of Joan of Arc. She tirelessly reviewed the Bogside defences, addressing the crowd through a loud-hailer.

By Thursday the battle assumed a kind of almost comic pattern: attacks from the nationalist side seemed to stop for meals.

There was little or no action at lunch and teatime but the fighting was renewed with greater intensity after these lulls. By now Catholics of all classes felt the need to involve themselves in the struggle.

There was a sense of the significance of what was already known as ‘the Battle of the Bogside’. Television cameramen from international networks were recording each detail of the struggle. It was believed that one of the reasons for the lull at 6pm was the hope by the younger participants that they might see themselves on the ‘telly’. The Irish government kept a close eye on the proceedings, calling an emergency cabinet meeting, and on the Wednesday evening Jack Lynch, the Fianna Fil Taoiseach, stated on television: ‘The government of Ireland can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse.’ In the cabinet strongest pressure came from Republican hardliners like Neil Blaney, who urged some unspecific invasion of Derry. Lynch, conscious of the effect such a move might have on the welfare of

Catholics in Belfast, held firm but asked the British government to apply to the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force.

The terror in all nationalist minds was that the entirely sectarian and armed B-Specials, mobilised that evening, would swamp the Bogside and be happy to use live rounds. Lynch did order units of the Irish army stationed near Letterkenny to set up properly equipped field hospitals at the border, at most five miles from the scene of the fighting.

Stronger lobbying of James Callaghan, the Home Secretary by John Hume and others finally persuaded him to authorise the deployment of the British army. They appeared on the streets at 6.00 some from the local Ebrington barracks but mostly from the troopship Sir Tristram. They assembled in Guildhall Square and Shipquay Street before moving to Waterloo Place and William Street. As they arrived the exhausted RUC moved gratefully out. The Battle of the Bogside was over.