Northern Ireland news

Film and exhibition marks centenary of Derry's 'Civil War'

The British Army's Dorset Regiment was deployed on the streets of Derry.
Seamus McKinney

A new film and online exhibition have been launched to mark the centenary of the greatest loss of life in Derry’s modern history.

Today marks the centenary of one of the bloodiest weeks in the Irish War of Independence when, in the space of six days, twenty people were killed in Derry in a battle between unionists, police and British army and the IRA.

Between June 19 and June 24 1920, fifteen people were shot dead by unionists and five by the IRA in what has come to be described as Derry’s civil war. Over the next week, the Museum of Free Derry will post daily updates, giving details of the dead and wounded and the ebb and flow of the battle.

The centenary is also being marked by a film 'Derry’s Civil War' commissioned by the museum, the city’s Aras Cholmcille, Gasyard Féile and the Triax neighbourhood management team. The short film charts each day of the turmoil and features footage and photographs from the time.

Following Sinn Féin’s landslide victory in the 1918 general election and the sitting of the First Dáil at Dublin’s Mansion House, unionist fears grew further when a Catholic-controlled Corporation was returned for the first time in 200 years in Derry.

On Saturday, June 19 1920, what was described as a “drunken sectarian squabble” broke out in the Long Tower area. As crowds continued to gather, unionist snipers starting shooting into Long Tower Street and Bishop Street, killing James McVey. In the following six days, the dead included a further 16 men and youths, two women and a ten-year-old child. An orphan, George Caldwell was shot dead by either a unionist sniper or British soldier as he looked out a window at the Nazareth House orphanage on Bishop Street.

With no protection from the RIC or British army, the IRA moved in to defend the Catholic population. IRA leaders and close allies of Michael Collins, Peadar Clancy and Dick McKee were sent from Dublin, appointing Patrick Shiels as OC of the Derry battalion. The IRA established its headquarters at St Columb’s College (now Lumen Christi College).

Historians record that it was only when the IRA started to push unionists back - and amid rumours that the Ulster battalions of the IRA were preparing to march on Derry – that police intervened. English Catholic convert, Augustus Austin was the final fatality, shot dead by unionists.

The declaration of a curfew and the use of a British Navy gunboat on the Foyle to scan Derry’s skyline for snipers brought hostilities to an end as the IRA moved out on June 24.

“Derry’s Civil War” and daily updates are available at https://www.museumoffreederry.org/.

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