June 24th, 1920: Pitched battles on the streets of Derry


IN THE midst of the War of Independence, while the IRA battled with the British army and other forces in the Southern parts of the country, the long-feared civil war between unionists and nationalists seemed in danger of breaking out in northern areas, particularly in Derry. As fighting continued for a sixth day in the city between nationalist and unionists, and also involving the British army, The Irish Times tried to piece together what was happening:

Yesterday [Wednesday] was the worst day that Derry has experienced since the shooting began on Saturday last. Firing went on for the greater part of the day.

At times it was intense, and at one period the volleys were so loud that they resembled explosions, and spread terror among the citizens.

Troops were on duty at various points, but they did not interfere with the rioters during the day. Soldiers are pouring into Belfast from outlying stations in Ulster, and some have been already sent to Derry. It is stated that as soon as sufficient reinforcements reach Londonderry, the city will be surrounded and disarmed.

It was extremely difficult to get trustworthy information from Derry last night. The areas where the fighting is taking place are cut off from the remainder of the city, and even streets far removed from these centres are dangerous for pedestrians. The most alarming rumours were afloat. It was said that the Sinn Féiners contemplated a descent on the Unionists in the South Ward at 11 o’clock, and that the military fired a machine-gun barrage on Bishop Street to frustrate the attempt. Five persons are believed to have been shot by the military during a rescue of Unionist refugees. . . .

Another Correspondent says:- Scenes of the most terrible description took place in Derry on Tuesday night and this morning. Many of the streets were swept by murderous fire for 16 hours continuously. To-day’s known casualties are one killed and 10 wounded, most of them dangerously. [An inquest later listed 18 killed over the week’s violence.] It is reported that several bodies are lying in Bishop Street. One of the wounded is a young girl. The firing commenced shortly before nine o’clock on Tuesday night, and continued incessantly until midday to-day, during which time several pitched battles took place between Sinn Féiners and Unionists. Sniping was also indulged in on a large scale, and there was indiscriminate firing of revolvers and rifles in all parts of the city . . . There was a wild night’s fighting in the Waterside district, the rival parties being entrenched in Cross Street and Bond Street respectively, both of which were barricaded. Snipers were busy up till one o’clock today, and contingents of soldiers had to be moved to the various streets, which had been impassable to the citizens. . . .

Fighting is taking place in outlying districts, from which Unionists are pouring into the city. One of the most bitter conflicts of the night took place at Abercorn Road and Bishop Street. There were snipers on the roofs of a couple of houses in the first-named thoroughfare, who directed their fire at the military in Carlisle Square. Workmen proceeding to the country have been held up at many points and fired on. Business in the city is again entirely suspended. . . .

A party of Irish Volunteers were in Bishop Street during the fighting in the St Columb’s College neighbourhood, and a band of Unionists attempted to cut them off. It is stated that windows in the apartments of the College usually occupied by the Roman Catholic Bishop were shattered during the fighting at this point. This forenoon the entire Post Office staff from the sub-office in Carlisle Road was removed for safety by troops to the head office.