Bloody Sunday, A Belfast Reaction - Pádraic MacCoitir

Ireland has seen many Bloody Sundays, the most infamous of which happened in Croke Park and in Derry. During the Tan War the IRA was very active in Dublin and after gathering intelligence on RIC and British army personnel local units attacked them in lodgings, killing 14. This was a pivotal moment during that phase of struggle.Later that day the British army and RIC drove in armoured vehicles to Croke Park where a match between Dublin and Tipperary was taking place. After positioning themselves in and around the pitch they opened fire on the players and supporters killing 14. This happened on 21st November 1920 and within a short time became known as Bloody Sunday.

Growing up in Lenadoon in Belfast I read some books about the Tan war and my heroes at that time were Tom Barry and Ernie O'Malley. I also read novels such as those written by Walter Macken. It was the action, as opposed to the politics, in those books that left an impression on me.

When the most recent conflict started in 1969 I would hear my parents and their friends talk of historical events and how things may be repeated in Belfast and other parts of the 6 Counties. Things did indeed get bad with the British army, RUC and unionist gangs killing many Catholics, nationalists and republicans. Lenadoon had been quieter than other parts but that was to change when internment was brought in by the British in August 1971. Heavy rioting took place on an almost daily basis and the IRA became very active with bombings and shootings against an enemy that heavily outnumbered them.

Every day after school me and my mates would go looking riots in and around Andersonstown and for us it was one big adventure. Of course there were times when it got frightening especially if we were caught up in gun battles or when the British army snatch squads chased us. Hundreds of rubber bullets were being fired and we saw a lot of people getting seriously hurt. I was hit a number of times but fortunately only around the legs so it was mostly bad bruising. 

Most nights we went to the local youth club in Oliver Plunkett school and although the youth leaders tried to keep us inside whenever the British army was driving or walking past we would inevitably get out to throw bottles and bricks and occasionally the rioting would last for hours. On Sunday afternoon 30th January 1972 my friends and I were on our way to the youth club when we saw older people standing at Lenadoon shops so we went over to hear what was going on. Some were crying and others were very angry as they started to talk about many people being killed in Derry. We were so young we didn't understand the full significance of it but we knew this was something very serious. Some were saying it was worse than what took place the previous August when many people were killed, the majority of them in Ballymurphy. We then walked up to the youth club and on the way people were standing at their doors listening to their radios. When we got into the club the leaders spoke to us and told us many were killed and they told us the club would be closing and we should go straight home. We didn't go home but walked around the estate and it was unbelievable how many people were out even though it was very cold.

When I got home my mother and her friends were sitting in the kitchen and they were in a very sombre mood and when I asked how many had been killed they said reports were coming in of at least twenty dead and even more injured. Next morning when I got up to go to school I looked out the window and saw some IRA men hi-jacking lorries at the back of Lenadoon shops. I rushed out and as I knew one or two I asked if I could go with them. They said I should be going to school but I pleaded with them and they let me into the front of the cab and we drove off. I was in my element and thought this was my big chance to see 'real' action. There was very little traffic on the roads and the lads said there were no British soldiers to be seen. I was very excited as they drove down the Shaw's Road then towards my school, La Salle. I still had my uniform on under my parka jacket and I was nervous as I thought they were going to tell me to get out. We drove into the school grounds and most of the teachers were standing at the steps and all the pupils were looking out the windows. The local units must have been told to drive hi-jacked vehicles to the school because there must have been about half dozen other lorries there. My form teacher and other teachers saw me but didn't say anything to me. Many years later I spoke to my form teacher and he too recalled that day when I was in the lorry and the terrible events that had taken place.

The hi-jacked lorries were driven to the Shaw's Road and used to barricade the streets. More pupils left the local schools and within a short time hundreds were out and we were all standing around talking of what happened the previous day. In Derry a protest rally was held calling for the ending of internment and thousands took part. It left the Creggan and wound its way through the streets of the Brandywell and the Bogside before being stopped by the British army in the city centre. Tensions were running high and there were some minor scuffles between a small number of protesters and the Brits, most of whom were from the Parachute regiment. Water cannons were used and this led to even more rioting. The British army charged the protesters and they ran the short distance to the Bogside. Within minutes live rounds were fired into the crowd and 28 unarmed people were shot, fourteen of whom were killed. We believed the events of Bloody Sunday would prove to be a turning point for the IRA. That year was to become the most violent with almost 500 killed, including 130 British soldiers.

A number of the lorries were set on fire as we heard dozens of British army vehicles approaching and when they arrived serious rioting took place. We also heard a lot of shooting and people were running about saying it was the IRA (or the Ra or the boys as we called them). Rioting and shooting took place throughout the day in our own and other republican areas. Protests and rallies were taking place throughout the country and the people of Dublin vented their anger by burning the British embassy to the ground.

When the funerals were over many called for an inquiry into the deaths in Derry and the day became known as Bloody Sunday. Within days the British government said they would initiate an inquiry but many people were reluctant to take part claiming it would be yet another whitewash. A senior British judge, Widgery, was appointed and within months published a report exonerating the British army from any wrongdoing. This led to even more anger and again we all thought this would be a major turning point in the struggle. But the British establishment were unmoved and they brought in even more draconian laws. In fact some of those responsible for the massacre were decorated for their 'services' to the British crown. Another inquiry was carried out by this by a leading British judge called Saville and he published a report years later. Some of those campaigning for truth and justice about what happened on Sunday 30th January 1972 believed the Saville inquiry afforded them a degree of 'closure'. However, many others were of the opinion that the Saville Report didn't go far enough and they continue to seek justice. 

Carried in Issue 3 of An Spréach Magazine, Jan - Feb 2019