‘Our parents refused to succumb to the relentless pressures of daily life’

Willie Deery, on left, and Hugo McConnell pictured with the model of the Springtown Camp hut.  DER3019GS-032
Willie Deery, on left, and Hugo McConnell pictured with the model of the Springtown Camp hut. DER3019GS-032

A new art installation commemorating Derry’s Springtown Camp - a former US naval base where hundreds of local families squatted after WWII - will be officially unveiled in the city next week, writes Sean McLaughlin.

The artwork - depicting a miniature size replica of a Springtown Camp hut - will be located at the junction of Springtown and Northland Road where the main entrance into the camp was located.

1964... Life in Springtown Camp was a daily battle for mothers and fathers; for children, however, it was a happy, carefree environment.

1964... Life in Springtown Camp was a daily battle for mothers and fathers; for children, however, it was a happy, carefree environment.

It is to be officially unveiled on Thursday next, August 1, at 12 noon.

The story of Springtown Camp is a remarkable one.

People without access to adequate housing squatted at the former naval base for more than 20 years.

The camp had been heavily guarded by US Marines during World War II but the Americans vacated the camp when the conflict ended in 1945.

1959... The famous photo of the '19 Mothers from Springtown Camp' which is to be recreated next month.

1959... The famous photo of the '19 Mothers from Springtown Camp' which is to be recreated next month.

The site had 302 huts, a chapel, gym, laundry, canteen, barber’s shop, theatre and, even, a jail. But the huts didn’t have water, electricity or heating.

The unionist-controlled Derry Corporation eventually granted temporary rentals to the huts’ new residents and charged rent.

That agreement was initially to last six months and the families were then to be allocated housing. However, this didn’t happen and the camp remained open until 1967 when its last ever resident left to move into a new house.

The history of Springtown Camp is one of injustice and victimisation.

Scores of mothers and fathers, feeling helpless, forgotten and discriminated against, were faced with stark choices - emigrate, stay and tolerate the grinding reality or stand up and confront the powers-that-be.

The story of Springtown Camp is also one of young people - particularly children - who grew up in a happy, carefree environment, oblivious to the pressures felt by their parents.

The men behind the new art installation are former Camp residents, Willie Deery and Hugo McConnell.

They say the new artwork is a memorial to the plight of the camp’s mothers and fathers and the injustices that they faced over many years.

“The lasting memory of us, the children of Springtown Camp, is of our parents’ refusal to succumb to the relentless pressures of their daily battles so they could retain some resemblance of a normal happy home for their children in abnormal circumstances,” the men told the ‘Journal’.

“The children of the camp have made it their responsibility to ensure that the plight of their mothers and fathers should be told so this and future generations are aware of the injustices they faced. This is the reason behind our art installation.”

According to Willie and Hugo, it was an “almost impossible task” for mothers and fathers to keep “an uninhabitable tin hut fit to live in for their children for two decades.”

“Make no mistake, the residents of the camp viewed this as a battle of endurance between themselves and the Londonderry Corporation. It was as if it was a personal battle between the residents and the powers that be.”

Willie and Hugo says that, despite the undeniable injustices their parents endured, “we remember them in a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation - it is what they would have wanted.”

Following the unveiling of the artwork at Springtown, Derry’s Mayor Michaela Boyle is to host a civic reception for former residents at the Guildhall.

This will be preceded by the recreation of a famous 60 year old photo of a group of Camp women staging a housing protest protesting outside the Guildhall.

The iconic image - from the archives of the ‘Derry Journal’ - will be revived by the daughters and grand-daughters of the original 19 women.

Willie Deery says it will be a poignant moment.

“In 1959, our mothers were evicted from the Guildhall by the RUC at the request of the Mayor. All they wanted was to address a Committee for two minutes regarding the conditions of the huts they were living in. This request was refused.

“Now, sixty years on, their daughters and grand-daughters are to attend a civic reception in the very same Guildhall. How times have changed.”