Battle of the Bogside: ‘Old people and young people stood together against the police’

Eyewitness to August 1969: Civil rights campaigner Dermie McClenaghan

The Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 led to the deployment of the British army to Northern Ireland and the start of what became known as the Troubles. Video: Enda O'Dowd & Ronan McGreevy

 

It is difficult to talk about the Battle of the Bogside without talking about what had happened prior to it.

People’s Democracy was a group of students from Belfast, mostly from Queen’s University. They were ambushed outside the town of Burntollet in January 1969. It caused a great emotional reaction when they arrived in the Guildhall Square.

There was serious rioting and the police came into the Bogside and beat people up and broke the windows.

The street radicals were accountable to no one. We were accountable to doing the right thing and we got a lot of attention.

Lots of things happened in early 1969 and lot of reforms were made. The Special Powers Act – which allowed for internment without trial – was abolished; William Craig [the former Northern minister who tried to justify the actions of the RUC] was sacked; and the Derry Corporation, which had an unjust majority, was abolished. Things seemed to look a bit better, but a lot of people felt they had come too late.

Inevitable trouble

On August 11th, it was arranged that myself, John Hume and Ivan Cooper would go to talk to the march organisers on the night before. We went and talked peace and wanted to stop the inevitable trouble that happened the next day, but we weren’t successful.

I was not too happy that the nationalist people were cornered in their own area.

On August 12th the police went up William Street, attacked the crowd, and people ran into the Bogside. Hundreds of ordinary Protestant people ran into the Bogside after the police.

The battle was fierce, but the amazing thing was the unity of the people in the Bogside. There was no criminal behaviour and no tension among the people. Old people and young people stood together against the police. The place was completely civilised despite the violence. They made sure that people who were manning the barricades had sandwiches brought down to them.

People during the Battle of the Bogside felt that morality, for want of a better word, was on their side

There was no dominance of a political ideology that stands out. The way it unified the community was remarkable. There was no criminal activity.

No say

There were a couple of republican-minded people in the committee, but they had no say in what was being done. It was amazingly impressive.

The police were told to get off the street by the soldiers. Eamon McCann typed out the barricade bulletin and it was handed out every day in the Bogside.

If anybody was seriously injured by a rubber bullet or tear gas they were taken to Letterkenny Hospital as they would get arrested if they went to Altnagelvin Hospital.

People during the Battle of the Bogside felt that morality, for want of a better word, was on their side.

People had to express their anger and their sadness about the way that the state in Northern Ireland had abandoned them.

– In conversation with Ronan McGreevy