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.
In the wee hours of the morning of October 23rd, 1971, the British Army rolled into the Falls area of Belfast with the intention of raiding houses and arresting anyone they suspected of criminal or “dissident” activities. It was a regular occurrence in the area and the residents had various ways of warning each other when the army was around. Runners would spread the word ahead of the vehicles and the Women’s Action Committee (WAC) would bang trash bin lids on the streets as an early alarm system. Sometimes people would blow whistles or sound horns from their cars as well which was exactly what two sisters, Maura Meehan and Dorothy Maguire, left a party to do on that early Autumn morning. When one of Meehan’s children asked where she was headed she told him that she’d be right back, as she grabbed a handheld horn and headed to a car outside. These words were the last she ever spoke to her family.
While I’m on the subject of documentaries and links, here’s another one for those who live outside of Ireland or cannot access current news specials from outside the region. “The Massacre at Ballymurphy,” is a shortened version of “The Ballymurphy Precendent,” a new documentary by Callum Macrea. It has been causing quite a stir online since its debut on Channel Four last weekend and has sent massive waves throughout the North of Ireland and beyond.
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.
Well, I almost made it. I almost made it through the season without posting another one of the pieces I write every single year about the sectarianism and the hatred that fuels the flames of bonfires throughout the north of Ireland annually. I guess I was hoping that it was all going to be fine this year, despite knowing it wouldn’t be. I suppose I thought if I didn’t talk about it, then it wouldn’t make me so angry. It doesn’t work like that though. In fact it might be more infuriating to watch it go all down without commenting – especially when it looks like this marching season buildup has been increasingly worse than those in recent memory.
He was brash and tenacious. He was often obnoxious and nearly always a drunk. He was a brilliant writer, but in his words he was “more importantly, a reader.” He was a cocky, yet humble adventurer who was opinionated but always seemed ready to be wrong or surprised. Anthony Bourdain was not Irish but he had a gift of gab and a way with words that put him on par with many of the great Irish writers that he was inspired by. He was touched by Ireland on his first trip there and on his last he wrote “Heaven looks like this” in the guestbook at the Gravedigger pub.
Patsy O’Hara was a survivor. He grew up in Derry during some of the city’s most violent years and he was hit by a soldier’s bullet at the tender age of fourteen. He lived through that ordeal and became a fighter devoted to freeing Ireland from English rule. Patsy had a keen sense of what he thought was right and a huge streak of Irish Republicanism. This combination led him straight into the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a militant Irish Republican group that was dedicated to forcing the English out of Ireland by any means necessary. It also eventually led him into the H-Blocks of Long Kesh Prison where he died on this day in 1981 while on hunger strike.
On this day in 1981, Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament. His candidacy was a risky maneuver, given that he was in prison and on hunger strike at the time and while his win ended up being a masterful propaganda tool, it did not save his life.
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.