45 years ago the Nationalist people in the Bogside area of Derry began a legendary fight with the British authorities that is widely regarded as one of the first events of the Troubles in the North of Ireland. The violence, rioting and battle began on August 12th, 1969 and was ignited by an ill-conceived decision to allow the Apprentice Boys to parade near the Nationalist and Catholic areas of Derry.
The authorities saw no reason to stop the oppressive parade that had been happening annually for years. What made this year different than others though was the political climate, which they were not in the habit of paying attention to. The Civil Rights movement was gaining traction all over the North and had led to many skirmishes in Derry already that year. The level of dissatisfaction in the Catholic and Nationalist areas including the Bogside, was already palpable and growing stronger every day. In 1969, Catholics made up more of the population than any others but the Protestant Minority still held all the key positions in government and power so they had no recourse for injustices they faced. Many flooded into the civil rights movement in order to have a voice – and those voices were getting stronger and stronger, despite being ignored by the leadership of the city.
It was under this kind of tension that the parade was not only allowed to happen, but it was going to happen right in their faces. It was the spark that sent the Bogside over the edge. In the days leading up to the parade, many attempts were made within the area to keep residents calm and a request was sent to the Apprentice Boys and the government to either cancel or to reroute the march. The plea was refused and the attempts for calm became plans for defensive maneuvers.
On August 10th, Nationalist, Republican, and Labour leaders spoke out defiantly to a large crowd in Celtic Park. If the city would not protect them, they would do it themselves. The elderly, women, and children who were considered vulnerable were relocated to other parts of the city and country. Barricades were erected all around the Bogside and it was clear that if the Apprentice Boys, the RUC or anyone else tried to enter the neighborhood they would be met with strong resistance.
Still the parade was allowed to continue. Despite the efforts of John Hume and other community stewards, the Bogside erupted when the parade and the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) lined its borders. The first engagement resulted in a standoff that lasted for 3 hours, until the RUC and their Unionist friends breached the barricades and went up and down Rossville Street smashing windows and beating residents, forcing a retreat. The Bogside citizens then regrouped and forced the invading forces back to the barricades.
The police retaliated by using CS gas on the Nationalist residents, which was the first time such an indiscriminate weapon was used in the North. What was intended as an effort to regain control just escalated the indignant Bogside and the battle began in earnest, not stopping for three days.
That night residents went door to door looking for empty bottles and other supplies in order to make as many petrol bombs as possible. First aid centers were erected and volunteer nurses and doctors saw injuries ranging from CS gas reactions to gunshots and baton attacks. The streets of Derry quite literally became a war zone and many families fled the area, while some of the more seriously injured poured over the border into the Republic for treatment in order to escape the RUC.
By morning, Nationalist youths lined the rooftops with a steady stream of petrol bombs, keeping the advances into the neighborhood at bay. The Barricade Bulletin, a news sheet from the area appeared overnight and kept people up to date on developments from the front line. It included instructions on how to make and throw petrol bombs and how to minimize the effects of CS gas using vinegar and handkerchiefs. There was no talk of surrender or standing down.
This brought Unionists in droves to Derry, to “help” the RUC in their attempts to enter Bogside. These untrained aides escalated the situation even further with sectarian slurs and threats of burning cathedrals. The dreaded B-Specials were brought in as well and continued to fuel the flames of sectarianism and violence. Nothing seemed to be able to stop the stream of hatred and riots from growing and spreading. In three days over 1,000 canisters of CS gas were fired into a small, densely populated area and thousands of injuries and casualties were reported.
As news of the standoff went out to other areas, similar protests and riots erupted in Belfast, Armagh, Dungiven and other towns throughout the region. Suddenly the eyes of the world were watching the violence in Derry as it began to spread across all of the North. The British Government knew it had to do something and it deployed the British Army for the first time to the streets of Derry in order to separate the citizens and the police. That they did, and as they marched into position, the Battle of the Bogside was ended.
Many Bogside residents were thrilled to see a neutral party enter the battle arena and thought that they would be supported, particularly since the Army had orders not to breach the barricades. Only a few radicals seemed to grasp what could happen later with the introduction of the Army to the North and their warnings were largely ignored at the time. Most people were just happy that the three days of constant chaos and imminent danger were finally over. They didn’t realize at the time that the Troubles were just beginning and going to last for another 30 years.