The world reacted with horror after English soldiers fired directly into a Derry crowd of peaceful anti-internment protesters, on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The soldiers wounded more than twenty and instantly killed thirteen innocent people. (One more died months later as a result of his injuries). On this day in 1972 a fuse was lit and just days after the killings, the English embassy in Dublin burned to the ground while eleven innocent people were buried in Derry.
The shock of the massacre quickly gave way to anger. Volunteers lined up in record numbers to join the Irish Republican Army. Money and arms poured into the north of Ireland as the fury spread into the Republic. Ireland called a national general strike on Feb. 2nd, 1972 to honor the victims in Derry, many of whom were buried on that day. Memorials were held across the nation in both Catholic and Protestant churches where the parishioners refused to cave into the sectarian politics of the time. Demonstrations erupted in many major cities and the crowds in Dublin numbered in the thousands, despite terrible weather and minimal public transportation. Large black flags flew at half mast and the entire island mourned the victims of Bloody Sunday and grieved with the survivors in Derry.
It was only a matter of time before the anger exploded. Crowds in Dublin had attempted to destroy the English embassy twice already in the days since the massacre and the third time was the charm. On this day in 1972, they annihilated it using rocks, petrol bombs, and sheer will. They placed coffins in front of the building before they set it on fire. It burned for hours, despite heavy rain while the crowds kept the authorities at bay. They cut hoses, blocked firefighters, and cheered as it burned. It was a cathartic attack that would come to symbolize the next few decades of conflict between the Irish people and the English government.
The Irish government took some heat (ahem) for not protecting the English outpost. It seemed that the Gardai sympathized with the crowd when they refused to step in until the destruction began to spread beyond the embassy. The English government was indignant, but it didn’t have much of a leg to stand on given that it had just sent its lethal Parachute Regiment into the streets of Derry. The shots they fired on Bloody Sunday reverberated across the world and the wave of anti-English sentiment spread to other nations – so much so that at least one English ambassador asked UN Peacekeepers to step in. Lectures and fundraisers for surviving family members were prevalent. Money flooded into the Irish Republican Army from many different countries. Poets wrote heartbreaking tales and books were published while movies and documentaries about the massacre were filmed. A record number of musicians wrote songs about the incident. Paul McCartney of the Beatles wrote and recorded “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” within two days of the Bogside massacre and even though it was almost immediately banned on English radio, it was a hit. His band mate John Lennon recorded two songs of his own, including the original “Sunday Bloody Sunday“, a brutal condemnation of England’s actions in the north of Ireland. He also spoke at a protest in New York that supported the families of those who were killed and he offered to sing at a fundraiser for the IRA, despite being a pacifist. And of course we all know that u2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was a blockbuster that helped boost their fame to previously uncharted heights. All of these high-profile celebrities and publications helped the families keep the pressure on the English government for decades. This eventually resulted in a second inquest and a formal apology for the unwarranted attack, however, their quest for justice continues to this day long after many of the celebrities, stories, and songs have faded.
It’s been more than forty-five years since the embassy burned in Dublin and the innocent protesters were buried in Derry but no one has truly been held accountable for it yet. The righteous anger that drove celebrities to action and a large crowd to symbolic destruction has largely waned over time and not much has changed.
Internment continues to this day (despite England’s denial of it) and atrocities continued throughout the north before the Good Friday Agreement and since. This adds up to more victims and what now seems to be an overwhelming desire to dismiss them and bury the past. There are many in power who insist that there’s no time or money for these cases and that any form of justice would only stir things up again in a region that’s known for volatility but these are flimsy excuses for inaction and their own political self-preservation. For far too many people the horror has never gone away and they still need support, perhaps now more than ever. Many survivors may not live to see justice served given how slowly its wheels have turned, so it’s up to us all to pick up that proverbial torch and shine a spotlight on their continuing search for resolution and closure.
Many of these incredibly strong people have now turned to educating the public about their ordeal. Most are activists in one way or another and even though some have fractured into different organizations with different goals, all deserve some kind of resolution. Sometimes history shouldn’t be confined to the past. Legacy issues mean everything to all of the victims, and they shouldn’t be held up by political bickering, fear, or sectarian policies.
Survivors and family members been carrying the torch for 40+ years and it has to be beyond exhausting. Give them a little help when you can. Listen and amplify their voices as they continue to keep the search for justice alive, not just in Derry and in this one circumstance but for many others that occurred (and still occur) throughout in the region. The heaviest burdens shouldn’t always rest on the shoulders of the most broken and brutalized and if they haven’t succumbed to apathy and inaction, we owe it to them and the victims to not allow ourselves to do that either.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh siad.
Addendum: For those who want to learn more, there are countless links, Facebook pages, and websites to peruse. Here are just the first few that come to mind in this moment.
- Relatives for Justice
- Bogside History Tours
- Museum of Free Derry
- Bloody Sunday March
- Ballymurphy Massacre
This is nowhere near a complete list and inclusion doesn’t equal personal endorsements.(Except when it does of course, and if you would like a couple, just ask)