‘Young people enjoyed the violence. I’m sorry I have to say that’

Eyewitness to 1969: Eamon Melaugh operated Radio Free Derry during the Battle of the Bogside

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 was a remarkable period of time even in the remarkable history of the period. I operated Radio Free Derry during those days.

It was a pretty primitive piece of equipment. I had to string a piece of wire 200 yards long to get the signal sent out so I decided to go to the top of the Rossville Street flats and drop a cable. I had an old hand-cranked gramophone player which was liberated from a house in Foyle Road. It was chaotic, it was pathetic, but people listened to it.

A lady got a telephone call from the American mid-west. She was concerned about her family back home. She held the telephone to the radio and I was heard broadcasting in the mid-west of America.

The first civil rights march in Derry was against unemployment and I organised it in 1960. The Bogside was the most densely populated area of the whole of Europe for its size.

Derry was never the same after the march of October 5th, 1968, when the police attacked demonstrators. That was the kernel of the problem.

Fergus Pyle (former Irish Times journalist and editor) told me that Stormont minister William Craig had told him that he intended to “wipe the streets of demonstrators”.

Battle of the Bogside

The Battle of the Bogside went on 24 hours a day. I spent a lot of time on the street appealing for an end to violence. I knew I was wasting my time, but my conscience told me that it had to be done. People had been rioting for years. Young people enjoyed the violence. I’m sorry I have to say that. Other people took part in it because they thought it was necessary.

There were not so many injured because people had been using violence from the ghetto for years. They knew what measures to take to try and reduce the risk. I was grateful for that fact.

I had a tremendous fear that when the police became completely physically exhausted that they would go on a killing spree.

I made the call for the British army to be sent on to the street. I realised that when they came on to the street, it wasn’t going to be a resolution of the terrible events that went on, but it would be a necessary lull.

The British Government were going to have to assume a degree of responsibility that it avoided all of the time prior to 1969.

In taking on a rotten, immovable corrupt system, I advocated that we should react to violence in a non-violent manner to gain credibility internationally and put pressure on the American government to get the British to clean up their dirty back yard which was the Six Counties.

I had a young boy shot dead no more than five metres from me on Bloody Sunday. He wasn’t throwing stones or petrol bombs. I was the last person he spoke to alive. That young person was totally and absolutely innocent.

Everrybody who was killed was murdered. I’m a great believer in the Sixth commandant – thou shalt not kill.

I always said that “when our blood flows, Stormont goes” and that’s exactly what happened.

* In an interview with Ronan McGreevy