The Unknown Heroine of Bloody Sunday

On January 30th, 1972, thirteen innocent people were murdered and twenty-eight were shot during an anti-internment march through the Bogside area of Derry.  Another innocent victim died later as a result of his injuries, bringing the total number of fatalities to fourteen. That bleak day became known as Bloody Sunday. At first the soldiers and the English government tried to claim that all who had been shot or killed were armed, dangerous, and/or members of the Irish Republican Army. Witness statements backed up with photographic evidence, forensics, and videos helped disprove their lies but it took nearly forty years and the most expensive inquiry in English history to finally exonerate the victims.

An anonymous teenage girl who would now probably be in her mid-to-late sixties made a quick and pivotal choice on Bloody Sunday that helped set those things in motion and has affected millions of people since. As she and her friends wandered through the aftermath of the Bogside Massacre, a stranger approached them. He quickly explained that authorities had begun searching people nearby and he had some rolls of film he needed to hide. This young girl quickly put the film in her underwear, assuming that her undergarments would not be searched if she were stopped. She was either not stopped or was correct in that assumption because later she met the man, Gilles Peress, at a hotel where she handed over his rolls of film and then promptly vanished. Peress drove straight out of Derry that night with his precious cargo and never saw the blonde girl again.

Anyone who has even a passing interest in recent Irish history has seen at least a few photographs that Peress took, but he had only been a photographer for a couple of years when he headed to Derry in 1972. He probably didn’t expect to shoot a bloodbath in the city or that his snapshots of the march and massacre were going to be seen around the world and used as evidence during the resulting investigations. He captured the last moments of both Patrick Doherty and Barney McGuigan’s lives and the rest of his photos clearly show the panic and chaos on the streets of Derry after the soldiers fired indiscriminately into the peaceful crowd. Some of his harrowing photographs can be found here, but they might never have been seen at all if not for that mysterious heroine of the day. If the police or the soldiers had found Peress’s film, it would likely have disappeared and it most certainly would have been kept from the public. He did not have to face that situation because of a brave teenager who never gave her name.

Peress is a world-renowned photographer these days. His experience on Bloody Sunday is probably what led him to chronicle the conflict in the north of Ireland for nearly twenty years. His stark and gripping photos of that period are collected in a book called “Power in the Blood.” He claims to know nothing more about the girl who helped him smuggle his film out of the Bogside that January night and despite a few articles like this one, she has never publicly come forward. Since another anniversary of the massacre is fast-approaching and her estimated age is continuing to climb, I thought I’d add my voice to any others who wish to thank her for her spur-of-the-moment decision that helped bring the horrifying truth of that awful day in Derry to the rest of the world. Peress changed the narrative with his photos, but he might not have been able to do that without Her.


One of the iconic photos Peress took on Bloody Sunday, showing Patrick Doherty (RIP) and Paddy Walsh

Thank you, whoever you are.

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