‘Incredibly relevant’: Bloody Sunday documents shed new light on atrocity

The archive of civil rights campaigner Kevin Boyle provides a ‘powerful first-hand account’ of events

On January 30th, 1972, Kevin Boyle was at home in Belfast when he saw the news from Derry. Thirteen people had been shot dead by the British army on what would become known as Bloody Sunday; a 14th died later.

A senior member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), Dr – later Prof – Boyle was the first to suggest a series of marches in Belfast, Derry and Newry; he would later compare the shock at what had happened to suffering a “concussion”.

“What my conscience, how my conscience responds is something I’ll have to decide for myself,” he said. “The whole of the Bogside and Creggan communities were on the streets in Derry; they wanted to be on the streets.

“That seems to me the best answer to those who say it was irresponsible to organise demonstrations. The people themselves responded, and they are the people that we in the end of the day feel responsible to.”


On Monday relatives of the victims will gather at the memorial in the Bogside to remember their loved ones on the 51st anniversary of the killings.

Previously unpublished documents from the Kevin Boyle archive, now held at the University of Galway library, shed fresh light on the period before the march and the local and international response.

“They are remarkable objects,” says archivist Dr Barry Houlihan. “Every item in the archive tells a story. NICRA was planning a series of marches early in 1972, though obviously it wasn’t planning what would become Bloody Sunday.”

A local civil rights committee was set up in Derry to take responsibility for organising the march; but, says Dr Houlihan, “the series of marches that would include Derry goes back to NICRA at its umbrella level and ultimately, as the sources tell us, goes back to Kevin.”

Prof Boyle was born in Newry in 1943 and became a lawyer and academic at Queen’s University Belfast, as well as an executive member and press officer for NICRA; his archive includes documents such as the minutes from the agm of the South Derry Civil Rights Association, held in Bellaghy in March 1972, which demonstrate the strength of feeling about Bloody Sunday in the area.

“Two days of mourning were observed on February 1st and 2nd for the victims of the Bloody Sunday Massacre in Derry. The public responded wholeheartedly to the call for a general close-down. Marches, protests and vigils were held in many centres.”

There is also a flyer from the Newry Civil Rights Association outlining “instructions for marchers” at the protest held in response to Bloody Sunday. “This march is to be in total silence in honour of the Derry dead,” it reads. “We are not searching for a confrontation with the British army.”

“I’ve no doubt Kevin wrote that flyer. That is a Kevin phrase completely,” says Dr Houlihan. “He was a pacifist to his core, and this is the message NICRA was putting out. This is the kind of thing the archive is still showing us, decades later.”

Prof Boyle was also a member of People’s Democracy and took part in the January 1969 march from Belfast to Derry that was attacked at Burntollet Bridge; the archive includes a rare photograph of what appears to be the march making its way through the Glenshane Pass in Co Derry.

His 1972 critique of the now-discredited Widgery report on Bloody Sunday challenges its findings from a legal and human rights perspective. “An incredibly brave thing to do, incredibly valuable thing to do,” says Dr Houlihan.

Prof Boyle forwarded a copy to the Irish government; a reply from the Department of Foreign Affairs said it had not been possible to use it in the department’s bulletin, but it had been passed on “to the section ... dealing with the Irish case before the European Commission on Human Rights, as you suggested in your letter.”

The collection also includes letters he received from around the world in the wake of Bloody Sunday, including from the Sunday Times journalist Murray Sayle. “I suppose one day we will learn what really happened on B[loody] Sunday. However, it certainly takes its place with Amritsar, Sharpville etc as a turning-point,” he wrote.

“He really puts the colonial violence in stark terms there so clearly,” says Dr Houlihan. “Now we see Derry being added to that roll call of Amritsar, Sharpeville – and now Derry.”

There is also a “remarkable” letter from the Committee of Human Rights in the German Democratic Republic – East Germany – which calls for “the immediate release of all civil rights fighters detained in concentration camps”.

Dr Houlihan researched its author, Friedel Malther, and found she was “a strong anti-fascist protester all her life and had spent time in the camps in Germany.

“She’s putting that comparative aspect there as well, [saying] here we are yet again, not too far removed from the concentration camp model, so the language and terminology is so interesting. It bridges gaps of history and geography.”

In 1977 Prof Boyle became the first full-time professor of law at the University of Galway; he subsequently worked for Amnesty International on human rights cases around the world and became Mary Robinson’s adviser during her time as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“We have his desk diary with that day, 9/11 2001, circled. It was his first day in office and it simply says, ‘Begin today at Palais Wilson’, and it’s a remarkable document, something so banal, so plain, a simple desk diary, and yet it records a link to an event that shaped the world.”

He went on to become professor and director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, and died in 2010.

“He was a rapporteur in South Africa for Amnesty [International] in the 1980s so he saw apartheid first hand, he saw race riots in Detroit in the 1970s and then of course protest marches in Northern Ireland, so he had this amazing perspective on discrimination, but from a human rights perspective, and that’s what makes Kevin’s eye on these events so unique,” says Dr Houlihan.

The archive, he says, provides such a “powerful first-hand account of the events that were global news stories in their day and which now, even decades later, are teaching us more and new information about what it was like to live through that,

“He worked on so many issues that are still ongoing in Northern Ireland and internationally. It’s still incredibly relevant. I keep coming back to it and finding new links to what’s happening socially and politically today.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times