Monday, August 10, 2009

Memories of '69

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.


Ed Feighan said...

Hi Gerry, Memories help us to never forget the brutality of what nationalist were put through in those dark days and they should last forever. My first trip north with my young children was a year after bloody sunday and it was something I will always remember. Crossing into Stabane on a back road we stopped for gas and the women who waited on us said she didn"t take that crap money(the irish pound) after paying her with change we drove about 3 miles to an army check point where I was made to get out of the car, questioned,searched and was giving strick orders that if I stopped I had to leave someone in the car in case we were carrying bombs.That meant leaving a 5 yr.old American daughter alone if we wanted to stop.A few miles later another stop and questioned again and told to leave the north now,or else. That whole ordeal left a bitter memory of the Brits for my 2 young children, I already had that hatred for them.Ed F.

Timothy Dougherty said...

Gerry you make be feel as if I was with you in that time, thank you for that. You made me return to the poems of Seamus Heaney-Docker...
Mosaic imperatives bang home like rivets;
God is a foreman with certain definite views
Who orders life in shifts of work and leisure.
A factory horn will blare the Resurrection.

He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross,
Clearly used to silence and an armchair:
Tonight the wife and children will be quiet
At slammed door and smoker's cough in the hall.

What a life to tolerate, there still is a long road ahead to create change in the mind of men.

British Irishman said...

Sorry you had a bad experience entering our country. You admit that '.. I already had a hatred for them..' Could this have coloured your opionion? Maybe people who go around with hatred in their hearts tend to attract bad feelings.
Anyway, given the record of Americans (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Granada, Iraq, Haiti, Panama, Afghanistan; not to mention all the Countries the CIA screwed with on the quiet)maybe our security forces had a right to be worried.
You guys have caused enough murder and mayhem in too many wee countries to have any moral right to condemn others for defending themselves.
I'm prepared to listen and try to understand what Gerry(as a fellow Irishman)and his community undoubtedly suffered; hopefully, together, we will find a way to release ourselves from the consequences of the 'sins of our fathers' and build a shared future.
Americans should try and wash the blood off their own hands before criticising other people...

ed feighan said...

To The British Irishmen, First let me say the only difference between you and me is all my grandparents were driven out Ulster,their property in the Parish of Bright,county Down was stolen and they ended up here in America fending for themselves with the clothes on their backs. You Brits have no right to talk about our history either since you are also known as the oppressors of the world but without the results we Yanks have had. We usually win our battles and don"t need your help doing it. Ed F

Micheal said...

The BBC, on Monday, claimed that unionists were afraid that they were facing a Revolt. This claim show's what a completely ammoral organisation the BBC is.

Hitler feared the Jew's had taken over Germany but I've never heard a news organisation seek to claim that as some kind of excuse for what followed.

Daithí said...

A Ghearóid, a chara,

An feidir leat fógra a dhéanamh faoin gcruinniú seo?

An-tabhachtach atá sé.

British Irishman said...

Now Ed, calm down...
Sorry about you guys having to leave Co Down.
Have you seen one of those old maps with all the pink areas?
Of course the British empire eventually disintegrated, in part due to the huge cost of defending freedom in two world wars. A lot of that cost was incurred whilst waiting for America to decide who would win and consequently turning up late; not once but twice.
You guys turned up on time for Vietnam... Great win that one!!
Crushing Grenada(that well known world power) was admittedly a great victory, Not!
Anyway Ed, It's the weekend, relax, have a good time and think positive thoughts about a shared future.