My son, Robert, and I journeyed to Ireland for a wonderful two-week vacation in June 2010. One of the most memorable (and moving) tours we took was a guided walk through the Bogside neighborhood of Londonderry in Northern Ireland. It was here that the Bloody Sunday tragedy occurred on January 30, 1972 – 42 years ago today.
When we got home to Ojai. Robert remarked, “You and mom are so lucky to live in a community where there is little or no violence.”
I replied “Yes, and a community that is not divided by political, nationalistic or religious dogma.”
I have both Irish (Catholic) and Scottish (Protestant) roots. My mom’s side of the family immigrated to the States in 1849 during the Irish potato famine. Oral history passed down from generation to generation says ancestors on my dad’s side of the family were deported from Scotland to Ireland. We suspect they were part of the Ulster Plantation coming to Northern Ireland in the 1600s, possibly from Londonderry.
Londonderry is one of the longest consecutively inhabited areas in all of the Emerald Isle. Catholic Saint Columba founded the Monastery of Doire there in the 6th century. Derry withstood Viking raids throughout the first millennium and, in the early 1600s, suffered the indignity of the Ulster Plantation by England’s King James I.
Four hundred years ago, the Ulster Plantation was an attempt to colonize Northern Ireland. The idea was to remove the natives from their land and to replace them with English and Scottish settlers. Migrants included army veterans, the younger sons of gentlemen seeking estates of their own, nobles, merchants, craftsmen, evicted Scottish farmers and fugitives of justice. The native Irish were driven to the bogs and the moors where it was hoped they would starve to death.
The new immigrants from England and Scotland enclosed the City of Derry in a massive stone wall in the early 1600s. As early as the 1640s, the Irish rebelled against the British Protestant settlers and its walled inhabitants. The wall and its cutouts for canons survives to this day. In 1662, the City of Derry was renamed Londonderry.
Just outside the walled city center, the Bogside was developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a home to Catholic workers. By the 1960s, it was overcrowded, with poverty and unemployment, making it ripe for revolt. In the late 1960s and 1970s, protests were regular events here. Given hundreds of years of oppression by the Protestants, it is not surprising that Londonderry became the center of the Catholic civil rights movement.
In 1969, protests morphed into riots, and the “Battle of the Bogside” unfolded over the course of 3 days, while fires burned and rocks were hurled at local police officers. At the end of it, the British government decided to base armed soldiers in Londonderry to keep the peace. By then, relations between Catholics and the Protestant local government had broken down entirely.
Taking a cue from Berkeley, California, protests, the 30,000 residents of the Bogside neighborhood declared their area to be “Free Derry,” in 1971. They painted murals arguing their cause on the walls of their houses and barricaded the soldiers and police from of the area. You can still see the Free Derry sign and murals as you look down at the Bogside from the walled city.
The Bogside became so dangerous for outsiders that even the military wouldn’t go there without armored vehicles. On January 30, 1972, the civil rights march that attracted 20,000 marchers shouldn’t have attracted particular attention, but for reasons still not fully understood, British troops opened fire on the marchers, killing 14, in one of the worst atrocities of what became known in Northern Ireland as “Bloody Sunday.” On Rossville Street, where shootings happened, a memorial has been erected commemorating those killed.
Shortly after Robert and I returned from our vacation, the British government published a lengthy report titled Report of the The Bloody Sunday Inquiry. The introduction to the report states that:
On 29th January 1998 the House of Commons resolved that it was expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely ‘the events on Sunday, 30 January 1972 which led to loss of life in connection with the procession in Londonderry on that day, taking account of any new information relevant to events on that day.’
The chapter on overall assessment concludes, in part, that:
The early firing in William Street resulted in two wounded casualties, neither of whom was doing anything that justified either of them being shot.
The soldiers of Support Company who went into the Bogside did so as the result of an order by Colonel Wilford, which should not have been given and which was contrary to the orders that he had received
We have concluded that the explanation for such firing by Support Company soldiers after they had gone into the Bogside was in most cases probably the mistaken belief among them that republican paramilitaries were responding in force to their arrival in the Bogside. This belief was initiated by the first shots fired by Lieutenant N and reinforced by the further shots that followed soon after. In this belief soldiers reacted by losing their self-control and firing themselves, forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training and failing to satisfy themselves that they had identified targets posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.
We may have differences with our neighbors or with our community leaders, but they pale in comparison to the troubles in Londonderry. We are so lucky to live in a community that embraces diversity; a community where diverse religious and/or political views are wholeheartedly encouraged.
May the residents of Londonderry find solace in that Bloody Sunday report. May they ultimately find peace.