Northern Ireland

Battle of the Bogside changed Northern Ireland forever

Fifty years ago today, Northern Ireland descended into the Troubles when the three-day Battle of the Bogside began. Within days the British army were on the streets and west Belfast's Bombay Street was in flames. Seamus McKinney reports on the seminal events half a century ago in Derry.

Receipts were issued for petrol bought for the Battle of the Bogside. PICTURE: Margaret McLaughlin
Receipts were issued for petrol bought for the Battle of the Bogside. PICTURE: Margaret McLaughlin

On August 14 1969 what became known as the Battle of the Bogside came to an end when British soldiers marched into Waterloo Place in Derry.

Their deployment followed three days that changed Northern Ireland completely. The people of Derry declared victory over the Northern Ireland state, the RUC and B specials.

At a press conference, the commanding officer the Prince of Wales Own Regiment, Major David Hanson – in the clipped tones of the military classes – told reporters: “Provided one is pleasant and polite, one can achieve an awful lot in this world”.

Over the previous three days, the people of the Bogside and Derry fought to keep the RUC at bay. Each time the RUC attempted to enter the Bogside, they were repelled by a hail of petrol bombs hurled from the roof of the high-rise Rossville flats.

The Derry Citizens’ Defence Association supervised the defence of the Bogside with military precision, even writing receipts for commandeered petrol for petrol bombs.

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With the Battle of the Bogside, nationalist grievances which had been simmering ever since the foundation of the state spilled over into outright action. Decades of the unionist gerrymander and the suppression of Derry’s nationalist majority had laid the groundwork.

Tensions in Derry had been rising since the previous October when a civil rights’ march, led by MPs, was attacked by the RUC. Nationalist anger was further fuelled when the RUC rampaged through the Bogside on the night of January 6, 1969, leading to the creation of Free Derry Corner.

In April of that year, local man, Sammy Devenny was brutally beaten by police in his own home. He died three months later, just a month before the always controversial Apprentice Boys’ Relief of Derry march.

Nationalists saw the annual August march as triumphalist, as unionism claiming ownership of their city. Visiting Apprentice Boys often used the walls to literally look down on Derry’s Catholics, often even throwing pennies to the natives in the Bogside.

In 1969, as the Apprentice Boys’ march passed by William Street, one of the main roads into the Bogside, it was met with the full brunt of years of nationalist anger. In response to nationalist stones, loyalists and unionists poured into William Street led by the RUC.

Convinced their Bogside homes would be attacked by police and unionism as they had been in January, Bogsiders took a stand. At Rossville Street, police were met with petrol bombs from the top of high-rise flats and forced back.

In the next three days, wave after wave of police attacks were turned back. Before the cameras of the world, members of the RUC were seen throwing petrol bombs and missiles, supported by a unionist mob.

Petrol bomb factories were set up to supply the front line in the Bogside. Local doctors and nurses responded to the call for help, establishing first aid posts. Buckets of water were left outside homes with rags so that rioters could offset the worst effects of RUC CS gas.

Unlike other riots, youths in the Battle of the Bogside were joined by men – many professional, many wearing shirts and ties - who would never normally have gone anywhere near a riot.

In a dramatic televised address on the second day Taoiseach, Jack Lynch said Ireland “could not stand by”. He pledged to send in the Irish Army. Camps were set up in County Donegal around the border where the army provided help and succour to Derry Catholics.

The late Paddy 'Bogside' Doherty issued his rallying cry to all able-bodied men in Ireland to come to Derry to defend the Bogside.

“We need you, we’ll feed you,” he said.

The call was met by an appeal by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights’ Association for people to stretch the police by protest throughout the North. Rioting broke out in Belfast, Newry and other areas. On August 14, with the RUC exhausted and unable to hold the centre, Harold Wilson sent in British troops to stand between the Bogside and the unionist state.

The Battle of the Bogside was at an end but Northern Ireland’s problems were far from over.