Death toll from 1969 Belfast unrest could have been ‘ten times’ higher
Previously unpublished report claims 50-60 people would have died without volunteer efforts
Author Malachi O’Doherty researched the Legion of Mary’s humanitarian role in Belfast having served as secretary of his school’s praesidium. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy
The death toll during rioting in Belfast in August 1969 could have been significantly higher had it not been for the intervention of voluntary workers, according to a previously unpublished report by the Legion of Mary.
Seven people died or were fatally wounded in Belfast during the violence of August 14th-15th 1969.
The internal report, which was made to the diocesan comitium in December 1969, reveals the organisation’s estimate of the scale of the violence in St Peter’s parish in the Lower Falls area of Belfast.
It was uncovered in the archives of the Legion of Mary by the writer and journalist Malachi O’Doherty during research for his book Fifty Years On, which is being launched in Belfast on Monday evening. The Legion of Mary report stated that 300 people had been given medical help, and 70 of them had serious gunshot wounds.
“Medical opinion confirmed that 50-60 of those would have died had it not been for the efforts of legionaries and members of the Knights of Malta,” it found. The parish also lost 130 homes during the rioting.
The Legion of Mary is organised into groups known as praesidia. The former secretary of his school’s praesidium, O’Doherty had been looking through his old minutes book in the archive when he found the reference to the report.
“Belfast was traumatised by the violence of that night,” said O’Doherty, “yet this report suggests that the death toll might easily have been ten times what it was, but for the intervention of voluntary workers in the area.”
The report only covers the area in St Peter’s parish, in the Lower Falls area, and does not cover areas such as Ardoyne which also saw significant street violence in August 1969. The government-commissioned Scarman report into the disturbances estimated that at least 745 people were injured in total.
According to the report, members of the Legion of Mary organised street cleaning and sanitation work and helped refugees with claims for rehousing. Members also gave support to a Protestant centre at the request of the minister. Fifty Years On: The Troubles and the Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland is published by Atlantic Books.