In the civil rights arena, America gets a lot of the press and always has. Many of the worst atrocities and biggest conflicts in the movement happened in the United States, and they continue to happen to this day. Hollywood has made plenty of movies chronicling the American fight for civil rights, including one about the fateful march from Selma in 1965 that raised awareness and inspired equality all over the world, especially in the north of Ireland where another civil rights movement was being born.
I can’t seem to focus on my regular, historical content these days and I apologize for the sporadic nature of the last couple of months. My state of mind can be summed up in a brilliantly tragic tweet by a certain Tim Grierson who says: “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry all the time feels morally irresponsible.” He’s right – this is life in America (and other places too I’m sure) these days. But before I attempt to return to my regularly scheduled Irish history program, I have to publicly lose my mind for a minute so that my little corner of international readers understands one very important thing. Americans are not OK.
Operation Demetrius was the fancy name the English used when they started rounding up people in the north of Ireland and imprisoning them without charges or trial. It was more commonly known as internment and it was the root cause of many of the worst conflicts and atrocities during the long period of the Troubles in the north of Ireland. The British government insists that the practice was officially ended in 1975 but the citizens of the region know better. Operation Demetrius may have ended but the practice of internment continues to this day and the most blatant proof of this is the continued imprisonment of Tony Taylor, a Republican activist from Derry. Today marks nearly two years that he has been held in the notorious Maghaberry prison, without public charges, bail, or trial.
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 newly revamped Museum of Free Derry has been mired in controversy since before its doors reopened. At issue is an exhibit that includes the names of all the people who were killed in the area during the Troubles. This seems harmless except that the names of British soldiers and police officers are also there, right alongside many innocent victims who were killed by those very same squads. The decision to include those names may seem reasonable from a purely educational viewpoint but the Museum underestimated the emotional response from locals who lost friends and family members during the conflict. For some of them, the inclusion of these government contingents is an affront to the memories of their loved ones and a blatant disregard for their own feelings and their continuing fight for answers and justice.
You can’t really be an Irish historian without studying at least a little bit about Bloody Sunday. Many have devoted their whole lives to what happened on that day, forty-five years ago. Many books have been written, movies and documentaries have been filmed and the controversy surrounding the massacre that occurred in Derry is still going strong. The families that were torn apart that fateful Sunday still relive it every day and they all have questions that still need answers. Until the day they finally get justice, I think it is their voices that need to be heard, not mine.
In case you can’t tell by now, I’m a little obsessed with Ireland and its history. This includes a lot of reading and writing about the Troubles and the horrific abuses that people suffered throughout that time period. I never had to live through anything like it, but it was easy to connect the dots between the Civil Rights movement in the US and the North of Ireland. I spent a lot of time being grateful that I missed most of the heavy lifting and hard decisions that were made to eventually grant basic human rights and equality for everyone (in theory). Last night that gratitude and privilege vanished as I watched people in my own country being hit with the same brutal tactics and illegal weaponry that defined the Troubles and the Civil Rights movements of the past. They were unarmed and peaceful, and many were nearly killed because they have the gall to believe in people over profit and water over oil.