On this day 50 years ago: Derry erupts in flames
August 13th, 1969: Drawing on contemporaneous reports, Donnacha Ó Beacháin describes the day’s events as they unfolded
The front page of The Irish Times of August 13th, 1969, reporting on the previous day’s events
Derry is in flames following several hours of bitter street fighting between local residents and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). More than 100 policemen are injured after invading Catholic sections of the city. Smoke billows across streets littered with rocks, broken glass and empty CS gas canisters.
For decades Derry has been a byword for some of the worst excesses of Unionist government in Northern Ireland. Although Catholics outnumber Protestants by more than two to one, restrictions on the franchise, plural voting and manipulation of electoral boundaries produce a substantial unionist majority on the city council, which doles out jobs, houses and grants.
Tension in the city had been simmering since the RUC attacked a civil rights march on October 5th last year. Only a few weeks ago pensioner Francis McCloskey died as a result of injuries sustained during an RUC baton charge in nearby Dungiven.
Days later, more than 20,000 people turned out in Derry for the funeral of Samuel Devenney, the 42-year-old father of nine, who died following a severe beating by the RUC who broke into his home and attacked his family.
For weeks now, Derry has held its breath as “the Twelfth” approached but the Stormont cabinet resisted pressure to ban all parades. Some 10,000 Orangemen and 60 bands have descended on Derry for the annual Apprentice Boys march to commemorate the famous siege of 1689 when Protestants repelled the entry of Catholic forces loyal to King James.
The Bogside, which forms a large bowl of thousands of Catholic homes, is the most sensitive section of the route.As Orangemen march through the city, sectarian songs blare out from loudspeakers recalling past victories over Irish Catholics.
Battle in the Bogside
The first stones are thrown from the Bogside shortly before 3pm, as the two-mile long parade approached the Catholic district. The violence quickly escalates despite the entreaties of civil rights leaders. “For God’s sake go home or this will be the end,” pleads Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer, but his words are met with jeers from the angry crowd. The stone throwing provokes a violent response from the 700-strong RUC force, which storms into the Bogside.
Between 4pm and 5pm, the RUC baton-charge their way through Waterloo Street and moved through William Street, pushing the crowd back to Rossville Street. Heavily armed and protected by shields and armoured vehicles, the police are accompanied by a loyalist mob that hurls stones and damages property. The RUC makes no attempt to restrain them.
By 8pm the Orange bands have dispersed and the marchers have returned to their homes throughout the North but the Bogside they left behind remains at war. Petrol bombs rain down from the nine-storey centrally located Rossville flats. The wounded are dragged away, some to hospital, others to their homes.
Westminster MP Bernadette Devlin urges people to unite behind the barricades, which are still in the process of being built.
As night descends, rioters capture a petrol station on the fringe of the Bogside and establish an assembly line of protesters making Molotov cocktails. “They have unlimited supplies of petrol,” an RUC spokesman says, “and we can only hope that they will soon run out of bottles.”
Shortly before midnight, the RUC start firing CS gas into the Bogside. It is the first time this chemical weapon has been used in Northern Ireland. Invented in England more than a decade ago, the gas has been applied during recent British colonial emergencies in Cyprus and British Guiana.
In solidarity with embattled Derry, civil rights supporters throughout the North organise street demonstrations to stretch RUC resources and slow down the progress of B-Specials, the much-feared auxiliary force composed entirely of Protestants, which has been ordered into Derry. In Dungannon, there is six hours of rioting resulting in 30 injuries while in Strabane, just 14 miles from Derry, up to 1,000 demonstrators wreck the local police station calling on the RUC to “get out of the Bogside”.
Northern Ireland’s cabinet’s security committee, headed by the prime minister, Maj James Chichester-Clark, spends most of the night in session and is in constant communication with senior RUC officials.
The vice-president of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, Vincent McDowell, declares that “a war of genocide is about to flare in the North”. The group demands “all Irishmen recognise their common interdependence and calls upon the Government and people of the Twenty-Six Counties to act now to prevent a great national disaster”.
Donnacha Ó Beacháin is associate professor at the school of law and government, Dublin City University. He is author of the book From Partition to Brexit: the Irish Government and Northern Ireland.