Memories of 69
The Falls area of west Belfast was a very different place in 1969. Then there was a multitude of small back to back red brick houses in row after row of narrow streets. Like many other parts of Belfast they had been constructed in the shadow of the Linen Mills. They housed the workers who slaved under the worst of conditions for the most meagre of wages.
Most of those who worked in the Mills were women and children, mostly girls. They started work at 6.30 each morning and worked until 6 pm each night. On Saturday they worked until 12 noon.
The quality of life was very bad. Wages were low, disease was widespread, the diet was very poor and the death rate was high.
The growth of the city in the 19th century had witnessed an explosion of population with many Catholics traveling in from rural areas, some as far away as the west of Ireland, seeking employment. They were generally to be found employed in the unskilled jobs as navies and general labourers or working in the foundries.
But Belfast was a unionist dominated city. And this meant that when it came to naming the streets in which the workers lived the planners turned to the British Empire for inspiration. Consequently, names like Sevastopol or Odessa from the Crimea War found their way onto the Falls Road. Balkan Street, Balaclava Street were there also. And in and around Clonard names drawn from the Indian sub continent like Bombay and Kashmir found their place.
The summer of 1969 was a very tense period. The Unionist regime at Stormont was resisting any meaningful reforms. Ian Paisley was leading counter demonstrations to Civil Rights marches. And several Catholics, Samuel Devenny in Derry, Francis McCloskey in Dungiven and Patrick Corry in Fermanagh had already died as a result of injuries received in beatings from the RUC.
Civil rights marches had been banned from town centres for over a year and beaten off the streets. But in Derry the Apprentice Boys, one of the marching orders, were to march through the City centre and along the walls looking down into the Bogside.
At the edge of the Bogside, young nationalists clashed with loyalists, and the RUC launched baton charges. Fighting side by side with the loyalists, the RUC brought up armoured cars and, for the first time in Ireland, CS gas. For forty-eight hours the mainly teenage defenders of the Bogside used stones, bottles and petrol bombs against the constant baton charges of hundreds of RUC and loyalists. Exploiting high rise flats with great effect, they lobbed petrol bombs at their attackers and succeeded in keeping them at bay.
In Belfast tension was at fever pitch. There was an emergency meeting of the Civil Rights Association on August 13th which I attended. From it came an appeal for solidarity demonstrations across the north against the events in Derry.
I went from that meeting to one in Divis Flats which I chaired. It was agreed we would march to the RUC barracks at Hasting Street and then to Springfield Road. As we assembled in front of Divis Flats our mood was defiant. We sang ‘We shall overcome’ amid chants of ‘SS/RUC’ and carried placards saying ‘The people of the Falls support the people of Derry’. The RUC attacked the march and this led to heavy rioting in Divis Street.
On the late evening of the 14th I remember leaving Springhill for to the Falls. There the situation was one of bedlam. A loyalist mob, including many members of the B Specials, armed with rifles, revolvers and sub-machine guns had gathered on the Shankill Road and moved along the streets leading to the Falls. They petrol bombed Catholic houses that lay on their route, beating up their occupants and shooting at fleeing residents.
This loyalist mob invaded the Falls, and as it reached the Falls Road itself, it started to attack St Comgall's school. The IRA opened fire and a loyalist gunman was killed.
Now the RUC, coming in behind the loyalist civilians and B Specials, opened up with heavy calibre Browning machine-guns from Shorland armoured cars. They directed their firing into the narrow streets and into Divis flats itself, where they killed a nine-year-old boy Patrick Rooney and a young local man, Hugh McCabe, home on leave from the British army.
Within a remarkably short space of time, the streets off the Falls Road, and the Falls itself, had been turned into a war zone. The IRA's armed intervention throughout Belfast was an extremely limited one. The real defence of the area was conducted by young people with petrol bombs and stones and bricks, though the IRA actions in the Falls and in Ardoyne were crucially important in halting the loyalist mobs at decisive times.
However, Bombay Street, Dover Street, and Percy Street were burned out and fighting continued all night in Conway Street. And in Ardoyne scores of homes were attacked and many destroyed in Hooker Street and Brookfield Street.
As dawn arose on the morning of 15 August, it did so over a scene of absolute devastation. Six people were dead, five Catholics and one Protestant; about I5O had been wounded by gunfire and hundreds of Catholic homes had been gutted. The Unionist Regime had also responded by introducing internment and 24 men from across the north had been arrested – all nationalists or republicans.
A pall of smoke rose over the Falls. The old familiar streetscape was shattered. The environment that I grew up in was gone.
The self¬-contained, enclosed village atmosphere of the area and its peaceful sense of security had been brutally torn apart, leaving our close¬knit community battered and bleeding The everyday world in which we lived our childhood had been destroyed. None of us knew what it presaged for the years ahead but we did know that things had changed utterly.