Springtown Camp: ‘We’re doing this for you because you did it for us’

Daughters and grand-daughters, recreate a photo of Springtown Camp mothers who staged a housing protest outside the Guildhall 60 years ago.  DER3119GS-026
Daughters and grand-daughters, recreate a photo of Springtown Camp mothers who staged a housing protest outside the Guildhall 60 years ago. DER3119GS-026

It was an emotional day for the daughters and grand-daughters of the original “19 Mothers” of Springtown Camp who gathered at Derry’s Guildhall last Thursday to recreate an iconic image that has come to symbolise the “we’ve had enough” attitude of a group of long-suffering Derry women.

A sixty year old photograph from the archives of the Derry Journal shows a group of women from the Camp protesting for better housing outside a meeting of the unionist-dominated Derry Corporation.

The 19 mothers pictured in the Derry Journal 60 years ago on the steps of the Guildhall.

The 19 mothers pictured in the Derry Journal 60 years ago on the steps of the Guildhall.

Taken in November 1959, the black and white image features 19 women who’d simply had enough of living conditions in the camp huts - originally built for wartime occupation by the US Navy and later branded as “unfit for human beings”.

The women had asked permission to address a meeting of the Corporation’s housing committee for just two minutes - but the unionist members refused to let them speak.

The women subsequently occupied the Council chamber and refused to leave until they were allowed to speak. The Unionist Corporators finally relented and allowed them to address a meeting - but only after all their other business had been discussed.

These protests and others involving people from Springtown Camp are now regarded as the first civil rights demonstrations in Derry.

On Thursday, daughters and grand-daughters of these indomitable women gathered on the very same steps of the Guildhall to recreate the famous ‘Journal’ photo and, in the process, pay tribute to their ancestors.

Among them was Eileen O’Donnell, daughter of Ellen Deane, who said: “I am so proud to be asked to represent my lovely mother and to also remember all the other mothers of the camp who fought so hard for all of us. I feel very privileged.”

Also taking part was Donna Morrow, daughter of Sadie Campbell, who, back in 1959, was the spokeswoman for the women: “This is so lovely and my mum will be looking down on all of us with a big grin on her face and I can hear her saying, ‘fair play to all of you girls’.”

Majella McClelland, daughter of Martha Toland, said: “It’s so emotional. I feel as if I’m 10ft tall standing in my mum’s footsteps. She was the best.”

Marlene Doyle, granddaughter of Susan Cullen, added: “It is a brilliant idea and I feel so honoured to be doing this. I loved my granny Susan to bits. She was my hero and inspiration and my dad would be so, so happy I’m doing this.”

Willie Deery, a former resident of the camp and its unofficial historian, said it was an “emotional and poignant day” for those taking part.

“The women are, as one of them said to me, actually walking in their mothers’ footsteps and it is really hitting home what they did for us all those years ago.

“Organising the new photo has also created a bond between all the women taking part. As the women look to the heavens today, they will each be quietly saying to themselves: “Mum, we are doing this for you, because you did it for us.”

Meanwhile, a new artwork depicting a mini replica of a Springtown Camp hut was unveiled in the city on Thursday.

The scaled-down model is located at the junction of Springtown and Northland Road where the main entrance to the camp - which closed in 1967 - once stood.