Eamonn McCann - ‘It was the best time, a lovely time, a really happy time’

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The exodus of Protestants from the west bank of the city 40 years ago changed Derry profoundly. The impact is being explored this week in a series of short dramas and discussions organised by the Church of Ireland’s Christ Church parish.

The exodus of Protestants from the west bank of the city 40 years ago changed Derry profoundly. The impact is being explored this week in a series of short dramas and discussions organised by the Church of Ireland’s Christ Church parish. In a departure from his regular column in this article Eamonn McCann talks to ‘Sandra’ about her experiences of the time....

I was brought up in Rosemount. Our street was very mixed. Cross Street, North Street, Osborne Street, Donegal Street, Artisan Street, the back streets, as we called them, were mainly Roman Catholic. Lewis Street and Rosemount Terrace were

mainly Protestant.

Around the Twelfth the back streets boys and girls would shout at us, and we shouted back. It was all good humoured, but it let us know there was something different.

There were seven of us, and my mother lost two as well, in a two up, two down and an attic. There was no contraception then. We went to church every Sunday, to Christ Church at the bottom of the park, walked down along with my daddy. My mammy

didn’t have time to go to church. She would be busy making the dinner. The school we went to was also Christ Church, where we started at five.

There were six classrooms when I went, then they built three more, nine classrooms for about 500 children. The thing I remember most was that the well-off children were swarmed over, never touched, they could do anything and they got off with it.

Businessmen’s children. There weren’t too many of them right enough, because we were all sort of poor then. But they got away with it, they bloody did. Even though there wasn’t any real hostility, a Protestant going with a Catholic or a Catholic with a Protestant was an absolute no- no. When I was going with Catholic fellas, I had to go home and lie, say I was with so and so from the Fountain or this navy man from Sea Eagle.

My first boyfriend, when I was 14, was from Creggan. He was a bit of an intellectual, had a lot of curly hair. We walked out by Lowry’s Lane, walked the county roads, Sheriff’s Mountain, up past the TV station, walked around and walked and walked

and then you found some wee ditch for half an hour and that was it, home again and no money spent. Ah, Joey from Greenwalk, he’s dead now. He used to sing Pat Boone to me in ditches.

I left school, and had to get a job. I went to work in Brewster’s bakery, behind the counter, first in Little James Street, then at Park Ave., which was far handier, no bus fares. I worked there until I got married, £2.50 a week. I brought it home and gave it to my mother and she handed me some back.

There wasn’t much talk about politics at that time. Sometimes we’d talk about Eddie McAteer. My father would call him “Eddie half a loaf is better than no bread.”

He always said that if the council in Derry didn’t change, something was going to happen. He could see the civil rights thing coming.

My mother would have voted Unionist. My father never bothered to vote. He hated Paisley with a vengeance. The Free Presbyterians hated the Church of Ireland. When we were living later in the Waterside, they wouldn’t let their children go

to our church, All Saints in Clooney, even for a carol service. That was the Free Presbyterians.

There was never any hostility in our house. But there came the time when you had to realise something was up. The atmosphere in the street was changing. You went to the corner shop, Paddy Sweeny’s, neighbours were all in chatting to Paddy in hushed

tones and you walked in and the conversation just stopped. You felt uncomfortable, you certainly did.

These were our neighbours. I had got married in 1965 and we got a flat in Waterloo Street because there were no houses. Then my granny died and then my granda died, so the house was empty. My uncle owned it and he sold it to us for £350. It was like heaven to have your own front door and your own toilet.

So we moved back to Rosemount, that would have been 1967. It was great. The neighbours were all so happy I was back with the wee girl. They made a whole fuss of her.

I had another wee girl in ’68. The Catholic neighbours all came in to see her. That was the best time, it was a lovely time, a really happy time.

The biggest blame for the way it went wrong is with that man Craig for banning that march. He was the ultimate culprit. After that, riots started and attacks on the police barracks. That started the fear. Maybe we knew there was no danger to us but the fear was still there. We felt different. We felt isolated.

Nobody talked about moving until the riots really started bad. There began to be incidents at the top of the street, running battles, young fellas from the Creggan and the Bogside stoning the barracks and stoning the army.

There was a mission hall, Marlborough Hall, where we went to Sunday school. We would have had parties in it and social gatherings, knitting clubs and all that. The young Catholics went in and burned it down, and tore the bibles up. That was our childhood place, our childhood haunt. They taught the gospel there. They did these wee parties, with bun bags and all, cakes and pastries. We’d play the The Farmer Wants a Wife and do the Waves of Tory. Tea parties and wee family meetings and

socials. That was all to be no more.It just got more and more heavy, and then, suddenly, it was internment day. A

neighbour came to our door and said, We’ve heard they are burning Lewis Street.

That was it. We went to barracks for help and they said they couldn’t, because of the no-go area. The police didn’t want to know us.

I didn’t see it all at the time as a row about internment and imprisonment without trial.

It was more about what was happening to us and our community and our family. My sister was married to a policeman, he is 70 odds now, and he says it was terrible. He was off work after it, couldn’t swallow, nerves in his throat, anxiety attacks. He was a big fair-minded fella.

I think the night of the bad rioting must have been the 15th of August, because there was a big fire lit at the top of the street and they danced around it. I went up to see from the corner and they are shouting terrible things about Protestants, shouting about what they were going to do to Protestants, shove red hot so and so up your…….It was really very frightening.

So we went down to the Housing Executive. We all went down together. We were told to go, although I can’t remember who told us.

I was dosed up with Valium. I was 25, with two wee girls with me. They offered me a fag, but I didn’t smoke. They said

there was nowhere for us, and I started to roar and squeal. They found a house for us in Lincoln Court. I hadn’t a clue where it was.

I did think if we stayed we were going to be burned out. Two young fellows had come to our door a while before with petrol bombs and one of them asked me did I have a match. It was in a menacing way. A lot of Catholic people wanted to move too at

that time. It happened very quickly in the end, the furniture van taking one family and

coming back for the next.

The day we moved out, I took a dinner with me. We were on TV, actually. There’s old footage with my wee girls in their wee hot-pants and t-shirts standing on the street and the furniture van moving furniture from our house. It’s often shown. Everything was piled into the van. The dinner was stuck in the saucepans, carrots and mince. I remember bringing it with me. There were three families from Rosemount sent to Lincoln Court. Some of the rest were put in Clooney. We were scattered any place they could find for us. My mother went to Newbuildings and that was her finished. She went downhill. She broke her

heart there, my father too.

I was more hurt than bitter at the time. I was too sick to be angry, with worry and the valium. The doctors were firing the valium into nearly everybody.

I met some of my Catholic neighbours after it, and we chatted and hugged one another. But at the same time, the fear stayed with me for ages. We could never stick Orange bands. Even as a young girl I didn’t like the sound of them. But the first

night we spent in Lincoln Court and I could hear the drums from somewhere up in Rossdowney, for the first time in my life I felt glad to hear an Orange band. I felt safe going to bed for the first time in two years.

Lincoln Court became all-Protestant. The Catholics who had moved in all moved back to the city side. Some said they were intimidated and, right enough, they could have been. The end was we were living in a totally Protestant area. That was the first time in my life I was living in an area with only one religion.

Where we are living now, I am back in a mixed neighbourhood. There is a Rosemount fella next door to us. His mother is one of the Rooneys from North St, in a mixed marriage. He goes to chapel. We all went to the mass to bury his father. Sure I played with Margaret Rooney in the street. She is always over here now, so we are chatting again. Funny how things happen. I had a job on the school buses for years as an escort with special needs children, so I was going to the Bog and Rosemount every day. I know how Rosemount has changed. It looks different. The Rosemount I knew isn’t there. I wouldn’t want to go

back. It’s not there to go back to.

The drama - by Jonathan Burgess - and discussions will take place today at the Caw Community Centre in Nelson Drive at 1.30pm, then at Christ Church, Infirmary Road at 7.30; at the Rathmór Centre, Bligh’s Lane, at 7pm tomorrow; the Diocesan Office, London Street on Thursday at 7.30pm; and at Newbuildings Community Centre for Contemporary Christianity on Friday at 1.30pm.