Much of the world was in flames in that summer of ’69. Derry, a big town or a small city, was having to compete for attention with far more bloody urban clashes in other countries and continents, the U.S. included.
But what Ireland lacked in geographic scale, it more than made up for in historical depth.
Those journalists that turned up in the North in the early days of the civil rights marches found themselves immersed in an historical conflict that had simmered since the days of pikes and muskets.
What transpired in Derry in those August days of 1969 laid bare to the world a society that has been constructed and maintained on a policy of discrimination based not on race, but on national loyalties and religious affiliation.
Those divisions, and the policies shoring them up, were never more evident than when marching groups walked along “traditional” parade routes while sticking it to residents who did not want the marches to take place.
In Derry, the marchers of August were Protestant and unionist. The uneasy residents were their neighbors, the city’s Catholic, nationalist and republican inhabitants.
The Battle of the Bogside was ignited by something long familiar to Derry people: the annual Apprentice Boys march, which took place on Aug. 12 that year. As the march reached Waterloo Place, nationalists staged a protest against what they saw as yet another set piece expression of Protestant triumphalism. The confrontation would not, however, simply end with tunes and slogans. Very quickly, running street skirmishes developed between young Catholics and members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Barricades sprang up all over the Bogside district and what followed was a battle by any definition. In a 36-hour period, hundreds of petrol bombs, bricks and other assorted missiles were directed at police, who fired back, primarily with gas.
Such was the intensity of the clashes that the British government rushed in troops. The soldiers were initially welcomed by Bogsiders, but the initial bonhomie was not to last.
The world was waking up to yet another conflict. Within the Bogside area itself, people gleaned information not just from mainstream media, but also by a local Samizdat that included the “Barricade Bulletin.” Bulletin No. 2, dated Aug. 14, would announce a “great defeat” for the unionist government in far away Belfast. But it added a cautionary note: “We do not yet know whether it is a victory for us.”
The argument over victory or defeat would repeatedly surface in Northern Ireland in the years that followed. It would hover over marches, demonstrations and even funeral processions. The argument would makes headlines anew in other places such as the Garvaghy Road and in Ardoyne. But it would never be quite resolved. The matter of who wins and loses in Northern Ireland has always been impossible to fully nail down.
The real battle has been to work out a process by which everyone comes out ahead. And that one continues to smolder. But the Battle of the Bogside, the clash that gave birth to “Free Derry” and riveting pictures that were beamed around the world, has to be seen now as an enormously significant turning point. It was a battle waged not by terrorists, but by citizens, old and young.
In the years that followed, many heads would hang with shame at the brutalities that were to become all too familiar during the Troubles. But veterans of August ’69 in Derry, to this day, find little trouble in recalling with some pride that they stood up to an unjust state apparatus and proclaimed a new and long-delayed freedom, if only for a handful of streets in a town that had been weighed down for too long by the failures of a troubled past.