On the night of January 4th (or the wee hours of the 5th) in 1969 a potent Irish landmark was born in The Town I Love So Well. The place that has since been known as Free Derry Corner stands uniquely in between three different busy roadways in the Bogside area of Derry city. At the time of its christening Free Derry Corner was a row of occupied houses but they are long gone these days. All that remains now is the gable wall with its stark black and white message that is still as true as ever. It is a monument to the neighborhood, the residents who have lived and died there, and the struggles and complicated past of Derry.
The activist who scrawled ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ on the wall of the houses probably didn’t know that his message would endure for decades to come. Liam Hillen wrote those words in 1969, during a conflict between the residents of the neighborhood and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC) and other Crown forces. A civil rights march had been attacked on that day by Loyalists and B-Specials while the RUC stood by chatting with the attackers and doing nothing to stop the mayhem. Many residents were injured and incensed with the lack of protection and they stayed up long into the night to stand watch in case their attackers returned. One story says that Hillen was antsy and someone told him to go paint the wall. He remembered a slogan he’d seen from halfway around the world in Berkeley, California and decided to paraphrase it in his graffiti. It became the rallying cry of the neighborhood. That night was the first time (and far from the last) that the Bogside erected barricades and boundaries to impede the Loyalist mobs and the heavy-handed police force. Within a few days the barricades extended from the Bogside into Creggan and other Nationalist areas, while pirate radio stations took to the airwaves and Nationalist newspapers began printing to report on the conflict. The barricades were removed a little over a week later, but the message of Free Derry spread like wildfire and the region began to boil. Hillen’s words were repainted semi-professionally by John “Caker” Casey, who made sure that the defiant message stayed bold and proud, year after year.
Later in 1969 the roadblocks returned and the Troubles erupted in the city. Free Derry corner was the center of the maelstrom. It became a meeting place for activists, marches, and residents and it bore silent witness to the Battle of the Bogside, Bloody Sunday, and many of the worst conflicts and atrocities that occurred over the next forty years. Today Free Derry Corner is the anchor of the world-famous Bogside murals. It is one of the region’s most photographed buildings and a striking H-Block memorial rests in its shadow.
This iconic corner is one of the best known landmarks in all of Ireland. It changes underlying themes and has showcased the area’s support for Palestine, Scottish Independence, Black Lives Matter, and many other causes, but the rotating additions never encroach on the building’s original proclamation. The barricades may be gone but the proud insistence of a free Derry is not and the words remain as bold and furious forty-eight years later as they were on the night they were first drawn.
A witness to these events has added to this tale. In his words, “Liam Hillen sat on the shoulders of Danny Begley to write the phrase that Eamon Mc Cann gave him. Chris Armstrong held the paint. The rest is history.“
Thanks for reading – and for the all the extra information.