Northern Ireland

Battle of the Bogside: Still a need to recapture spirit of Free Derry, says Eamonn McCann

Eamonn McCann is still inspired by the people power of the Battle of the Bogside.
Eamonn McCann is still inspired by the people power of the Battle of the Bogside.

Veteran campaigner, Eamonn McCann says he is still inspired by the three days of the Battle of the Bogside. 

Now a People before Profit councillor on Derry City and Strabane District Council, Mr McCann was one the key protagonists in the emerging campaign for civil rights in the 1960s. As a Bogsider, he was on the frontline through the 1969 Battle of the Bogside. 

“It was inevitable given everything that was happening at the time. Tension had been rising since the October 5 march earlier and the confrontation between the marchers and the RUC. I think there was an element of inevitability. But it was not part of anybody’s armed struggle,” he said. 

Mr McCann said the Battle of the Bogside also had to be placed on the context of global events at the time. It came just after the 1968 Paris student riots for an end to class discrimination as well as the campaign for racial equality and protests against the Vietnam War in the US. 

While the immediate reasons for the conflict centred on Derry and discrimination against the city’s nationalist majority, Mr McCann said people were attracted to the “struggle” from outside the North. 

“There were about 50 to 60 people from outside there; I remember there were Germans and French people camping in Celtic Park.” 

The veteran campaigner rejected unionist claims that the Battle of the Bogside was orchestrated and controlled by the IRA to undermine the Northern state. 

“There were no gunmen on the streets. Free Derry gave people a great sense of freedom; it was about people power. 

“Many unionists believed that the IRA were involved. Bill Craig, the Home Affairs Minister, said it but that was absolutely not true. The reality was that there was no-one running Free Derry. The organisation of the situation at the time was very loose. There was a wide variety of views and not just nationalist views, not just nationalist views. That’s clear if you read the speeches at the time; it was not some kind of nationalist uprising.” 

Mr McCann said the three days of the Battle of the Bogside changed Northern Ireland forever and still resonated and were still relevant 50 years on. 

“If you look at what’s going on in Hong Kong, demonstrations again Putin in Russia. The Battle of the Bogside was natural; it was a cry for liberation coming from very deep within people. It was not imposed on them; it was spontaneous,” he said. 

While the 1969 campaign and conflict or Free Derry could not be repeated, Mr McCann said there was a need to “recapture the spirit of Free Derry and the mass mobilisation of the people. He said this was evident in the Republic in campaigns for the removal of the 8th amendment from the Irish Constitution and for equal marriage. 

“It was not parliament acting; anything we got, it was the people themselves. I still take inspiration from the Battle of the Bogside,” Mr McCann said.