What Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement means to Miriam O’Callaghan

RTÉ’s documentary about the 1968 protests is part history show, part personal journey

Miriam O’Callaghan journeys to Derry, Alabama and Washington

Miriam O’Callaghan journeys to Derry, Alabama and Washington

 

The march of progress has always followed a circuitous route. It does have some defined meeting points, though. In the case of the pivotal Northern Irish civil rights marches of 1968 – non-violent protests that ultimately met with violent responses – the impetus began elsewhere.

“For me, the story of the Northern Irish civil rights movement begins three years before 1968 and 4,000 miles away,” begins Miriam O’Callaghan in 1968: The Long March (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.35pm).

I have to admit my attention snagged on the words, “for me”. It isn’t a controversial opinion to trace Northern Ireland’s peaceful marches to the stirring example of the US Black Civil Rights struggle. Last year’s In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America also highlighted the influence of the Selma to Montgomery marches against segregation.

Perhaps it is intended to personalise this telling, as though it would not involve us if it did not first involve its presenter.

Sometimes O’Callaghan’s associations are particularly faint, as when she refers to the anti-revolutionary anxieties of the late 1960s by briefly repairing to her alma mater, UCD, to repeat the legend of its riot-proof campus design.

O’Callaghan’s thesis, though, is more invested, an account of the correspondence between civil rights movements across the Atlantic and the role of the media in broadcasting them. Of Alabama, she says, “Perhaps, more importantly, the marches were filmed and photographed.” The revolution has been televised.

The programme builds up comparisons between American segregation and Northern Irish sectarianism through far-flung journeys – to Derry, Alabama and Washington – archive material and new interviews. We hear of the intimidations of the Ku Klux Klan and the dignity of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, then the gradual confrontations in Derry with what Eamonn McCann recalls as “that daily pin-pricking humiliation”, such as the Unionist stranglehold on jobs and social housing.

“I grew up in a world shaped by those events and those brave enough to stand up and be counted,” says O’Callaghan, between interviews with Bernadette McAliskey (nee Devlin), Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, and lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson. At this remove, there is a conflicted appreciation for the nobility of peaceful protest and the near-necessity of disproportionate violent reaction.

When McAliskey remembers Derry’s chief of police reading the Riot Act during the second civil rights march, it is almost surreal: “That’s crazy. I didn’t know the Riot Act was a real thing.”

For others, the upheaval was a validation: “We’ve done it! It cannot be ignored!” says Currie. “In a pathetic way we were pleased to be included in the revolution roll call of the world,” grins McCann.

As with the violent subduing of Alabama’s Bloody Sunday, the RUC’s aggressive response on October 5th, 1968, inflamed the world. “It wasn’t the violence alone,” O’Callaghan comments, “it was the images of it.”

The programme draws parallels better than conclusions, a more serviceable report than an invigorating interpretation. O’Callaghan applauds the efficacy of “visible peaceful protest” in late 1960s America, for instance (for all its grave sacrifice), but worries of Northern Ireland that “what started in 1968 led to decades of violence and war”.

These respective marches were hardly in lockstep, though, and you feel the argument strain where their paths diverge. To wrap up, O’Callaghan reaches for the words of Martin Luther King, as many an essayist does:

“The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.” The marches move on.