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The Day All Hell Broke Loose

Enda O’Doherty writes: It is common enough for people who in later life become writers, in one sense of the word or another, to point to an inspirational teacher, normally a teacher of English, who set them on their way many decades previously. It is only by a bit of a stretch that I can be said to have ever been a writer, but I did become, nel mezzo del cammin di mia vita, and through lack of any other notable talent with which to earn my living, a rewriter.

The usual term is editor, or in the press, where I worked, sub-editor. A sub-editor, of course, is not a real writer but a tinkerer with other people’s work. A definition that had been handed down in the Irish Press, the first place where I plied this trade, was “A sub-editor is a man who changes other men’s words and goes home in the dark.” Sexism apart, this was a fairly accurate representation of the calling and fate of a sub-editor for a morning newspaper, with the added implication of course that the wretch has no words of his own and remains unenlightened even after reading the superbly crafted ones of better men than him. You won’t be surprised to hear that the view from the sub-editors’ bench of the literary abilities of reporters was often rather different.

But back to that English teacher. Mine, in St Columb’s College in Derry in the late 1960s, was Peter Mullan. He was a young man, not long out of Queen’s University, and his job was to guide the B-stream class to the best results that could be hoped for in A-level English and on the way, in so far as possible, to lead twenty or so boys of sixteen through to being boys or young men of eighteen and perhaps towards a realisation that there might be more to life, that it might be a more complex, rich, or even sad affair, than they had previously thought. His job was perhaps made a little easier by the A-level curriculum, which allowed concentration on a smaller number of texts than did the Leaving Cert at that time; it was thus perhaps a better preparation for the university study of English, which could be a pretty intellectually challenging affair.

As part of the broadening process, Mr Mullan, whom I remember as a quiet-spoken, pleasant, humorous and smiling young man, decided that we should read as much contemporary (or twentieth century) fiction as we could fit in. And so he extracted a few shillings from each of us and bought a selection of Penguins which were then passed around the class (to be read in spare time at home): Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ellison, Huxley, Waugh, Lawrence, Orwell, Bellow, McCullers, Drabble, Joyce, O’Brien. It is probably through this process that I came to the conclusion that literature was something glamorous, which may have led to my decision to plump for it at university. I would actually have been better off studying history.


It was something else that was felt to be glamorous that Peter Mullan introduced me to (though I was already quite receptive) that I’m remembering him for today, fifty years after the events. One thing that we didn’t know about him until October 1968 (he’d already been teaching us for a year) was that he was a member of Derry Labour Party, one of the organisations which was involved in organising a small civil rights demonstration that was to have rather a large impact on the history of Northern Ireland. A few days before Saturday, October 5th, our teacher gathered a few of us together (my memory is obviously hazy on this but I don’t think he addressed the whole class) to tell us of an event we might be interested in, a protest march which had been declared illegal and which therefore was likely to be stopped by the police, and perhaps attacked. He was understandably a little nervous about inviting us to participate in something that might be dangerous, but he wanted a good turn-out all the same.

Indeed the march was attacked, viciously and very publicly, with the film footage becoming the lead item on television news programmes in Britain, Ireland and further afield over the next twenty-four hours. October 5th in Derry was not the beginning of the civil rights movement, but it was certainly the beginning of international awareness of the denial of rights and systematic discrimination suffered by Northern Ireland’s Catholics. And the violence of the police that day on Duke Street in the Waterside, and the rioting that followed in the evening on the fringe of the Bogside across the river, are often spoken of as marking the start of (that phase of) the Troubles.

Was everything that followed inevitable? Was it even “gamed” in advance as some unionist analysts believe? “The Troubles may have developed into a sectarian conflict, but the violence was sparked by a small band of leftists who wanted Derry in October 1968 to be a repeat of Paris in May of the same year.” Such is apparently the argument of a new book published to coincide with the anniversary of the Duke Street march. I must admit I find this line puzzling and unpersuasive. The “small band of leftists” involved in organising the October 5th march must, one assumes, refer to the likes of Eamonn McCann and Eamonn Melaugh, not exactly the most tightly focused band of conspirators since one was, and is, a Trotskyist and the other a sympathiser of orthodox communism. Other elements heavily involved in the early civil rights movement in Derry included the more social democratic and mildly nationalist John Hume and Ivan Cooper, traditional nationalists like Eddie McAteer, anti-sectarian liberals like Claude Wilton and a small but well-organised number of republicans acting through the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) whose long-term aim was a thirty-two-county socialist republic. There was also the student-based People’s Democracy movement, which meant little in Derry but which did have the most brilliant and charismatic speaker of the entire movement (and there was some competition here) – Bernadette Devlin.

Conspiracies may well exist both high and low in politics (after all, all political activity at bottom aims to put one over on the public). But the effect of a number of independent and quite incompatible conspiracies acting inside the same small movement is often for them to cancel each other out. And that, I would surmise, was what the leftist elements in the early civil rights movement did. Some of the participants in the Derry Housing Action Committee (the primary organisers of the Duke Street march) may have seen political progress as coming through social agitation on housing and employment which would unite Catholic and Protestant workers in a movement which would ultimately be revolutionary in intent, but this was always an elusive – not to say illusory – goal in Northern Ireland, then and now.

On the other hand, the sudden and unexpected international focus on the plight of Northern Ireland’s Catholics and the violence with which their reasonable-sounding demands were apparently being met meant that here was a bandwagon that was just screaming to be jumped on. And so the much more broadly-based (and somewhat more middle class) Derry Citizens Action Committee was formed shortly after the Duke Street police riot. (It was not, mind you, sufficiently broad-based to include any women, but one – out of sixteen ‑ was co-opted after protests.) If the DHAC had initially been able to mobilise a few hundred marchers the DCAC, and the wider civil rights movement, was soon able to muster tens of thousands. The corollary of this was that the movement was no longer – if it had ever been ‑ a socialist agitation but a movement of mass Catholic resistance to injustice, sometimes supported by Protestant politicians like Ivan Cooper and the hugely popular Derry solicitor Claude Wilton (“Vote for Claude, the Catholic Prod”), support that was immensely valuable and valued as the movement sought to stress its moderate and non-revanchist credentials. It was also a movement with a very clear moral tone: Ivan Cooper was not the only one to draw parallels with the much admired non-violent campaigns of Martin Luther-King and his allies in the US. The clear leaders in Derry became John Hume and Ivan Cooper, while in Tyrone and Belfast Austin Currie, Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin also emerged. From the more moderate (proto-SDLP) figures to the more radical (Devlin, McCann, Michael Farrell), here was a collection of representatives little known to the public a few years previously whose striking eloquence and organisational ability were to shake unionism.

I managed to get out of Duke Street that afternoon having suffered nothing worse than verbal abuse from a few policemen in the back of a jeep. A fellow student at St Columb’s fared worse: photographs of him being savagely beaten and then dragged away by RUC officers were published all over the world. Later that evening I was on William Street, the interface between the Catholic Bogside and the city centre, where much violence was to occur over the succeeding years. On the night of October 5th, at the foot of Rossville Street flats, some duffel-coated revolutionary socialists from out of town were explaining to a small crowd what was to be done. But a hundred yards away some of the local residents were already doing it for themselves. I remember a retail bakery on the corner of William Street and Little James' Street, in its display window a very impressive tiered wedding cake which the crowd had decided it wished to liberate. Each stone thrown (“brick” they call them in Derry) shook the window and the crack extended gradually until finally the plate glass window collapsed, to massive cheers. This was the first concrete gain of the revolution: that evening the sans culottes might eat cake.

In the weeks and months that followed Eamonn McCann was increasingly critical of the new civil rights leadership as “middle class, middle-aged and middle of the road” (he wasn’t wrong but not everyone sees these things as sinful) and frequently spoke of the people’s “anger”. He may not have been wrong about the anger either: they certainly had plenty to be angry about, but we should maybe remember that dictionary definitions suggest that for many “riotous” behaviour can be a joyous release, particularly if you're not getting a lot of joy in your life from other sources.

There is a narrative of the Troubles which suggests that a series of confrontations between the civil rights movement and the unionist establishment eventually revealed that the latter was not capable of being reformed and that, sadly, nothing was ever likely to be achieved without “armed struggle”. This was not the view of most people at the time and it’s not my view now. Indeed the first year of the civil rights movement was a time of great hope and considerable progress (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive ...”), progress we were all confident could be peacefully built on (though not of course without temporary setbacks). Those who, like Rev Ian Paisley and his supporters, set out to strangle the sickly child of moderate unionism at birth and close off the possibility of a peaceful accommodation between the two communities must examine their consciences (and indeed their political wisdom) in the light of everything that has happened since, as must those elements in the security forces who were responsible for routine brutalities and appalling massacres like Bloody Sunday. But so too must those who worked to engineer what they later came to call “the war”. I am thinking initially of Southern figures like Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithi Ó Conaill, who saw in the growing breakdown of order and the unacceptability of the security forces in Catholic areas, the key to (yet another) “one last heave” towards a United Ireland. And we all know how that went, in spite of so many deaths.

Could it have been different? This is one of those irresistible yet ultimately unanswerable questions in history. We don’t know. But if it had gone differently a lot of people who are in the cemeteries might currently be enjoying the pleasures of being doted-upon grandfathers.

5/10/2018

A good detailed account of the early civil rights years is Bob Purdie’s Politics in the Streets (1990), which can be read online at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/crights/purdie/index.html