The world is full of people who look back at history and tell you that they saw it all coming. I wish they told me at the time. If you have a sketchy history in mind of the past 40 years, you’ll know that the Battle of Bogside led on to the Provisional IRA and 30 years of guerrilla warfare that saw more than 3,000 people die.
There’s a tendency to think that, because this happened, it must have been inevitable that it would happen. But it’s never true in history that one thing simply leads on inexorably to another. There are always other possibilities.
The Bogside in Derry is about a square mile in area and had, I suppose, a population of about 30,000 in 1969. It was very crowded and very poor.
The battle which erupted in the area in 1969 wasn’t a riot—people throwing stones at cops. It had the character of an uprising. It began on 12 August 1969 at about 2.30pm, triggered by an Apprentice Boys demonstration through the centre of the city.
The Apprentice Boys of Derry was an all-Protestant institution. Every 12 August they would march to commemorate the Siege of Derry in 1688-1689, when King William defeated the forces of King James. The march was perceived in the Bogside as a ritual, annual humiliation.
The reason the Bogside is called the Bogside is because it used to be a bog. There was a river along what is now Rossville Street and a boggy slope running down to it. In the 19th century, thousands poured in from Co. Derry, Tyrone and Donegal, mainly to work in the textile industry.
They were overwhelmingly Catholic, fleeing poverty, even starvation, and they set up house on the bogside. Their presence inside the Walls was discouraged. Hence the resentment every year when the Apprentice Boys marched along the Walls above the area and literally looked down on the people.
Up until 1969 local people made no sustained attempt to do anything about it. Catholics had been excluded from public life for generations and had little confidence.
But come August 1969, the days when the people of the Bogside were willing to take it lying down were long gone. So in the weeks leading up to 12 August, preparations were under way to try and stop the march.
To an extent, it was a defensive operation. There was real fear that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Apprentice Boys might pour into the area and trash it.
As the Boys came into view in Waterloo Place, just outside the area, there was a surge forward from the Bogside. In response, the RUC and the Apprentice Boys stormed in, some carrying cudgels. We had bricks and stones and petrol bombs and fought them off.
We decided to hold onto the area. There wasn’t much to decide—it had already been in the air. Every entrance to the Bogside was barricaded within an hour. We’d had barricading materials stored in advance.
Some barricades were very formidable, with scaffolding rammed into the ground and pointing forward that would have impaled any vehicle coming towards it.
We held the area for 48 hours through constant fighting. This was highly exciting and, looking back on it, great fun. There was a huge whoosh, a giddy upsurge of communal feeling, a sense of heightened identity, shared excitement, optimism and daring.
The police were using huge volumes of CS gas. The air was thick with it. In a strategic master-stroke, young people climbed onto the roof of the Rossville Flats, which dominated the main entrance to the Bogside.
Every time the RUC tried to come in, it rained petrol bombs. After 48 hours we had pushed the police back, right out of the area.
It was at that point that the first battalion of the Prince of Wales Regiment came marching through Waterloo Place and into William Street. The first thing they did was stretch barbed wire across the mouth of William Street.
Were they going to come in, invade the area? Start shooting at us?
We soon realised that they weren’t going to encroach. As well as shutting us in, they had shut themselves out. A couple of us went forward and asked what their intentions were. A man called Colonel Millman stepped forward: “We’re not coming into your area....We’re here to solve the problems.”
That was regarded by most people in the Bogside as a victory—and in a sense it was. The soldiers began pushing the police back into their barracks, an amazing sight to see.
This is important for understanding why people they saw the arrival of British soldiers as a victory. On the other hand there was ambivalence. It wasn’t in the tradition of the people of the area to welcome British forces.
We had a left group in the area and within two hours had a bulletin out. It began, “This is a great defeat for the RUC. It is not yet a victory for us.” I can stand by that.
Our barricades stayed until October. We held the area for a couple of months. There was no police, no army, no law and order. It was one of the most peaceful periods ever in Derry.
One of the reasons it eventually crumbled was precisely that the British soldiers never came in. We had patrols and were semi-organised. We had a central citizens’ defence committee.
During the battle, messages were sent out urging “move forward and attack” and so forth. But people were doing that anyway. It was the equivalent of ordering the sun to rise in the morning and taking responsibility for its eventual appearance.
Young people in particular didn’t need instructions. Within an hour of the start of the battle, 15 and 16 year olds had learnt strategy and tactics, how to lure the police in and attack them from behind and so on. It was obvious when you knew the terrain.
There were patrols at night, watching for incursions and so on. But by October, with no incursions happening, it began to seem a bit ridiculous. The first phase of Free Derry ended.
You can look back at it now and simply celebrate. I do. I have a lot of time for anybody who gets up and fights against oppression. After that, we can make all the criticisms we like. But this was an uprising of working class people who had been scorned all their lives.
From the first day of the battle, you could hear the same phrase over and over on the street: “Things are never going to be the same again”. You didn’t have to be a political analyst to see that.
When people look back now, they think that what happened after the Battle of Bogside was inevitable—the oppression of the RUC, the growth of the IRA, years of guerrilla warfare and oppression, misery and pain.
There are tours of the Bogside now, which I hate. Tourists come from all over and guides take them around. The version of events many give is amazing.
They say that people were oppressed and so the Provisional IRA came along and led them in a fight. But the strongest element in the politics of the Bogside were socialists.
The reason people were not prepared to put up with the annual Apprentice Boys march in 1969 had to do with the fact that there had been campaigning under way for months, disrupting council meetings, occupying public buildings, blocking roads, marching.
If I could put a date on the beginning of the events that led to the Battle of Bogside, I would say March 1968.
We were beginning to build momentum by May, when we met John Wilson, who was living with his wife and four children in a caravan.
It was freezing in the winter and an oven in the summer. All of John’s children had lung problems. The main reason he couldn’t get a house was that he was a Catholic.
Only homeowners could vote in local elections, so if you gave a person a house, you gave them a vote, and the Unionists had to be very circumspect about who they allowed to vote.
We pulled the caravan out and blocked a road for 24 hours. We started with about 20 people and by the end we had about 200. We announced that the next weekend we were doing it for 48 hours. This time we started with a hundred and ended with 500.
Then we said we’d take the caravan to the city centre the following weekend if the Wilsons were not given a house. The Housing Trust announced it would find a house for them. We had won.
There was a whole series of actions like this, virtually all organised by socialists. The response of the RUC was increasingly violent.
All of this led up to the Battle of the Bogside. Sometimes tiny things can detonate great explosions.
So how to explain the fact that the left didn’t hold onto the initiative? Why were we blown away?
There were two major factors against us. One was that it seemed rather abstract to talk about class politics and unity when the official labour movement had never backed a serious struggle for an end to discrimination.
The idea of the Labour Party and union leaders in Northern Ireland was that you shouldn’t associate too closely with the oppressed because that would divide the working class along sectarian lines.
The other reason we didn’t leave a deeper and clearer imprint had to do with the nature of left politics of the time.
Many influential thinkers on the left had written off the working class. They reckoned that because people now had washing machines and the rest of it, they weren’t interested in radical politics.
There was a decisive turn away from the working class. The one tendency in Britain that held out against this was the International Socialists.
If you put these two things together—the betrayal of the working-class movement and the incoherence and fragmentary nature of a left that wasn’t clearly focused—you can see the difficulties that socialists faced.
But sometimes we criticise ourselves too much. We did leave behind a tradition of radicalism—the idea of fighting from below, driving politics and society forward on the basis of grass-roots, street organisation. That legacy remains.
I think we’ve a lot to be proud of. I’m not downbeat at all about what we did. I think it was terrific.
Eamonn McCann was speaking at the Marxism Festival in London in July. His history of the battle, War and an Irish Town, and recordings of the meeting are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.
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