Sometimes it seems that there’s never anything but tragic news coming out of Derry. I have to remind myself that there are plenty of wonderful things happening in the town I love so well and so many wonderful people who call it home…but yesterday as I sought those out my heart sank yet again. The headlines screamed out the news of a young woman who was killed in the crossfire on the city streets and it broke my heart.
When one thinks of Bloody Sunday, what usually comes to mind is the 1972 civil rights march in Derry, where English soldiers opened fire on marchers and brutally murdered fourteen innocent people. This incident shocked the world and spilled over into pop culture leading to multiple songs, movies, documentaries and more – making it one of the most notorious moments in Irish history. It was not the first “Bloody Sunday” in Ireland, but (thankfully) it was the last. There have been four dreadful days known as Bloody Sunday in recent Irish history and the second (and most deadly) one occurred on this date, November 21st, 1920, in Dublin.
The conflict known as the Troubles was a long war on many fronts. There were some people fighting against those they saw as invaders and oppressors and others fighting to show how loyal they were to the country they felt part of. There was also a propaganda war being fought as various groups tried to reach sympathetic audiences (and large pocketbooks) around the world. The third battleground was the deadliest of all and it was comprised of all the tit-for-tat, mostly Sectarian killings between various paramilitary groups. This last front resulted in the vast majority of civilian deaths throughout the region and it was the hardest to prepare for or justify. It includes the Devil’s Night massacre at the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel, which happened on this day in 1993.
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 city of Oakland has a long history of civil unrest, political activism, militant citizen groups, edgy art, underground activities, and a blatant distrust for the authorities. This is not without reason. It also has a history of corrupt city leaders, murder, criminal enterprise, police brutality, city-sponsored displacement and gentrification, and swift vigilante justice. This […]
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.
On this day 102 years ago, a large shipment of arms landed in Howth, destined for the Irish Volunteers. Many of these guns were used two years later during the Easter Rising of 1916 and without them, the Rising may never have happened at all. When the Asgard came to shore it was met by the Fianna Éireann and other Volunteers who were quick to unload the weapons and begin carting them off. They hoped to avoid the attention of the police, but their mission did not pass unnoticed. The authorities who were watching did not engage the large crowd but they did call for backup. As the Volunteers left the area they were met by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, a regiment of the British Army. A tussle ensued but in the end, the soldiers were only able to confiscate a mere nineteen of the nine hundred guns brought into Ireland that day.
News spread quickly of the successful smuggling operation and the military’s failure to seize most of the weapons so by the time the Borderers were marching back into Dublin, crowds had already gathered to celebrate and to mock them. They antagonized the soldiers, taunting them and throwing rubbish and fruit at the column (which magically became stones in the official reports). They shouted insults and openly laughed at the troops and their failed mission. Soldiers and police officers never tolerate this kind of behavior for long (as they continue to prove to this day) and by the time they marched onto Bachelors Walk they had had enough of the hostile crowd. The soldiers turned to face the people and seconds later shots were fired directly into the busy street, hitting those who had been following them and innocent civilians alike. They followed the volley of bullets with a bayonet charge. The collective lack of self control from the army resulted in four casualties and nearly forty others were injured.
Gerry Conlon may be the single most influential person when it comes to who got me into studying Irish politics. The Guildford Four case was riveting for me and it showed just how cruel and scared absolutely everyone was in the heart of the conflict known colloquially as the Troubles. His case was a close second to the Easter Rising of 1916 in my favorite stories of tragic Irish triumph.
On June 21st, 2014 at 4AM California time, I found out that Gerry Conlon had passed away and I actually shed a tear. This marked the first time I cried over a celebrity passing away since Johnny Cash, and I am pretty sure that it only happened those two times. I was heartbroken and I almost got up then to write about it but I wasn’t awake enough to articulate the utter sadness of this news.
For those that may not know his story, early in 1975, Gerry Conlon and three other young adults were arrested in connection to the IRA bombing of the Guildford Pub. Despite having nothing to do with the IRA or the bombings, they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison…thankfully, since if they’d been sentenced to death, they all would have been dead before their convictions were quashed. Before they were eventually released, another seven innocent people were convicted of aiding them in this incident – including many of Conlon’s family members and his father, Giuseppe Conlon. Guiseppe never strayed from proclaiming his innocence and he remained hopeful that the miscarriage of justice would be overturned, but Gerry did not. Gerry did not have the fortitude of belief of his father.
Guiseppe Conlon died in prison an innocent man. Years and years later, his son – who found the fighter in himself shortly after the tragic death of his dad, eventually walked out of the courthouse through the front door over fifteen years later when his conviction was quashed, proving to the world that the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven had been wrongly convicted. The blockbuster movie “In the Name of the Father” was based on these real life events and is an amazing film. If you haven’t seen it, go find it now. Seriously. It took over fifteen years for the police to admit they had made mistakes and purposefully suppressed evidence in order to convict these men and women…none of whom fit any profile or had any paramilitary or political ties.
I was sixteen when they released Gerry and I remember seeing the footage of him leaving the courthouse. It was one of my first forays into Irish politics – and it was a story that led to another, to another, and to another. More than twenty-five years later, I can point to Gerry Conlon as one of the reasons that I fell in love with Irish history. His story had a profound effect on my psyche. Unfortunately his story does not have the Hollywood ending that he so deserved. He struggled with depression, suicide, and addiction since the day he was finally released – and really, who wouldn’t? I cannot find fault in the need to try to erase what has happened to you and your family in whatever way you can. Still, Conlon made it to sixty years of age and was a published author and an activist in other cases that he felt were rigged or unfair. He died on this day in 2014 in Belfast and even now I am still a little teary as I write those words. I wish I had met him – it actually was a thing I had hoped to do someday – just to tell him what a profound impact his story had on shaping who I am and what my interests are. Sixty is too young for many but for Gerry Conlon it was a pretty amazing feat, given that he spent over 15 of them wrongly convicted in the harshest prisons.
His family says it better than anyone else could. In a statement issued through his lawyer Gareth Peirce, they said: “He brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours. He helped us to survive what we were not meant to survive. We thank him for his life and we thank all his many friends for their love.”
Rest in Peace Mr. Conlon. Your story and your fight will forever be inspiring and triumphant. I am sorry you lived it and I am thankful for the impact it had on me. I hope you see your father again.