The short time I spent in Derry utterly changed me. The wounded city stole a large part of my heart when I took my first steps into it – and my life, my writing, my opinions, and my studies have changed drastically in the years since that first visit. It is why I regularly set the alarm for an ungodly time here in the states to watch events as they unfold in Derry in real time. This morning was one of those days that I got up before the sun with my digital eyes glued to the news from The Town I Love So Well because after so many years of determination and stubborn hope, it was finally possible that the families of the innocent people who were shot and killed on Bloody Sunday would get the justice and the vindication that they deserved. It was easy to be optimistic when I woke up. After all, if the Prime Minister can call the killings ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ why wouldn’t there be consequences for those who pulled the trigger? But my heart sank quickly as the news came in. The vast majority of those responsible for murdering innocent people and firing indiscriminately into a crowd of peaceful protestors will not be charged with any crime, despite overwhelming evidence that they should be.
It’s more salt in the wounds for the survivors and the families of those who were murdered. To see their astonishing grace and determination in the face of even more injustice this morning was mind blowing. Words are not sufficient for what they must be feeling and to remain so dignified in the face of this fresh devastation is beyond my comprehension. They will continue their quest for justice, despite this setback and the many other obstacles they’ve faced on this journey. Please support them in any way you can.
One of their many incredible statements can be found here.
Operation Motorman was the code name given to a mission carried out by the British Army in the North of Ireland on July 31st, 1972. The goal was to forcibly reassert control over the Nationalist and Republican areas where they were not welcome with a particular focus in the cities of Derry and Belfast. In these cities, nearly impenetrable barricades had been erected in many neighborhoods barring any soldiers from entering or policing the communities. When the Provisional Irish Republican Army detonated more than twenty bombs in Belfast on July 21st of that year, the English government decided that the “No-go” areas in these towns would no longer be tolerated and Operation Motorman was born.
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.
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.
The Museum of Free Derry has temporarily removed its most controversial exhibit and Linda Nash and Helen Deery have brought their around-the-clock protest inside the museum to a close. All parties will meet again next week with a mediator to negotiate how to proceed when it comes to the exhibit that was created to remember the victims of the Troubles from 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.
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.
Annette McGavigan was only eleven years old when the Troubles erupted in the North of Ireland. Her home was in Derry, one of the major flashpoints of the Troubles and a stronghold of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. She and the other children of the area witnessed more conflict than any child should within those first few years. She would have seen the British Army rolling into her city, bringing CS gas, rubber bullets, violence and protest with them. Riot after riot broke out and civil rights marches, anti-internment protests, and anti-police incidents were frequent and violent. These things probably became rather commonplace over the next few years for Annette and the other children who were growing up in areas like Creggan, Little Diamond, and the Bogside.
On Sept. 6th, 1971, when Annette was only fourteen, Catholic schools were closed in Derry. Teachers were taking part in a week-long anti-internment program. This left the schoolchildren with free time. Some joined the protests and riots and others stayed in. Once a small riot had ended on the edge of the Bogside, Annette and her friends went out to collect the leftovers of the violence. Children regularly gathered rubber bullets, gas canisters and more after each riot in Derry and this day off from school gave Annette the perfect opportunity to hunt for these dangerous souvenirs. As the young girl in a school uniform picked up an empty cartridge, a shot rang out. She likely never knew what hit her.
I arrived in Derry during a downpour, even though the sun was still peeking through the gathering storm clouds. By the end of the trip, I felt like the weather was a perfect metaphor for the city itself. Derry is rare. It is dark, but light pierces through it. It is grey but full of color. It is gathering and ready, but still and waiting. It is tragic and beautiful. Derry is a very special place.