On this day 50 years ago: Solidarity with Bogside spreads across Ireland

August 13th 1969: Drawing on contemporaneous reports, Donnacha Ó Beacháin describes the day’s events as they unfolded

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

 

For the second night in a row Derry is in flames and chaos reigns. The average age of Bogsiders involved in the fighting is reported to have risen as the RUC’s tactics have united the population in an effort to protect their families and homes.

About 5,000 men, women and children hurl petrol bombs and stones at the RUC and B-Specials. A new station – Radio Free Derry – is broadcasting and urging people to man the barricades.

Fires are blazing at several points throughout the city and there is widespread street fighting. The heavy blanket of CS gas that hangs over the Bogside has taken its toll, particularly on the old, the sick and the very young.

Reports are also coming in of large violent confrontations in Coalisland, Enniskillen, Dungannon, Strabane, Armagh and in Dungiven, where police are besieged in the local RUC station.

Although well resourced, the RUC are showing signs of exhaustion and their numbers are depleted from repeated clashes with Bogsiders armed with stones and petrol bombs and using vinegar-soaked handkerchiefs to protect themselves from CS gas.

Did you see them earlier? Charging with the Paisleyites? Well, don’t tell me that we have to take this any longer

Inspired by Ian Paisley’s inflammatory oratory, and armed with pick-axe handles and cudgels, hundreds of loyalists roam the streets, identified by white arm bands, and co-operating openly with the police, charging through streets and hurling stones at the Bogsiders. The resultant inferno meets the approval of some RUC men.

Crunch time

Northern Ireland, a powder keg since its inception, has finally exploded. The Derry Citizens Association declares that “after 50 years of unionist tyranny, we have come finally to the crunch. Either we smash unionism now or we go back to sleep for another 50 years. The Derry Citizens Association calls on every able-bodied man in Ireland to come into this city. We need them. We will feed them.”

These sentiments are echoed by those manning the barricades, one of whom asks: “Why doesn’t the South want to do something?

The front page of The Irish Times of August 13th, 1969, reporting on the previous day’s events
The front page of The Irish Times of August 13th, 1969, reporting on the previous day’s events

“They have been beating us down for years, well, they are not going to do it any more. We are prepared for them this time and we’ll fight it out to the end. Did you see them earlier? Charging with the Paisleyites? Well, don’t tell me that we have to take this any longer.”

The Irish government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse

More than 100 journalists from around the world are in Derry, most of them have set up their headquarters at the five-storey City Hotel. The media has become a focal point for attack from rampaging loyalists unhappy with news coverage. The journalists are besieged in the hotel and some parts of the building have been set alight.

In Dublin, a crowd of about 2,500 people rally outside the GPO in O’Connell Street and hear demands that the Irish government use all resources at its disposal including military force if needed “to defend the people of the six counties”. The crowd grows to more than 4,000 as it marches on the shuttered British embassy. Though some stones are thrown at the building, stewards manage to guide the protesters away to Leinster House where they hand in a letter of protest while singing the civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome.

Field hospitals

Following a long emergency meeting of the cabinet, the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, travels to RTÉ’s television studios from where he makes a sensational address to the nation. Describing the current crisis as “the inevitable outcome of the policies pursued for decades by successive Stormont governments”, he requests early negotiations with the British government to review the North’s constitutional position.

Stating that “the reunification of the national territory can provide the only permanent solution to the problem”, he declares that “the Irish government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse”.

This speech is being interpreted by some members of the British and Northern Ireland governments as a threat – and by many nationalists as a promise – that Dublin is actively considering military intervention of some kind if matters do not improve.

The taoiseach announces that the Army is moving to the Border to establish field hospitals “in Co Donegal adjacent to Derry and at other points along the Border where they may be necessary”.

There is widespread reluctance in London’s political circles to get dragged back into what many see as the Irish abyss

The British government issues an extraordinarily quick rebuttal of the taoiseach’s speech. Rejecting the suggestion of a UN peacekeeping force in Northern Ireland or talks on the region’s constitutional future, London says the affairs of Northern Ireland are “an internal matter”.

Reaction to the taoiseach’s speech in the British media is almost entirely negative. Typical of this criticism is the Daily Mail, which argues that the taoiseach “has chosen provocation” and while “mouthing sentiments of tolerance and goodwill, he has set in motion ideas and actions which can only add fuel to the flames”.

‘Clumsy and intolerable intrusion’

There is widespread reluctance in London’s political circles to get dragged back into what many see as the Irish abyss. It is generally accepted that committing British troops to the North, an idea very much in the air, would involve a much more active role for the British government, which could have profound constitutional implications.

A leading article in The Times, for example, concludes that “when British troops are needed to keep order in the six counties nearly 50 years after partition, then the possibility must be faced that the Irish settlement has proved a failure”.

Northern Ireland’s prime minster, Major James Chichester-Clark, dismisses the taoiseach’s assertions as a “clumsy and intolerable intrusion into our internal affairs” and says he will “hold Mr Lynch personally responsible for any worsening of feeling his inflammatory and ill-considered remarks may cause”.

Stormont has banned all parades for the next month. It has also mobilised the entire strength of the much-feared B-Specials – estimated to be about 10,000 well-armed Protestant men – and put them at the disposal of the RUC.

When asked about the fighting in Derry, minister for finance Hebert Kirk replies that “the police have it well under control”. His cabinet colleague Brian Faulkner is his usual good-humoured self and as he tries to run the gauntlet of reporters, remarks: “This looks like a barricade!” The minister says the province has never been more prosperous and that “99.9 per cent of the people in Northern Ireland are determined that peace should be maintained”.

The taoiseach’s speech receives an overwhelming endorsement from nationalist opinion, North and South. An emotional leader of the Nationalist Party, Eddie McAteer, says: “The long-watched day has broken. Now I am lonely no longer. Jack Lynch has softly stolen his way into history.”

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