Derry 30 January 1972. After the coldest night of the winter, Sunday morning began with an effervescence of light and frost. The ground was ringing iron as a few early citizens moved through the yellow streets.
At 2 p.m. we joined the crowd on Bishop’s Field. The atmosphere was carnival; children played on the metal swings as they waited for the march to form up. At the edge of the field the grass was frozen into wrinkles of clay and ice, but where the crowd had been trampling, liquid soil oozed underfoot. Two Army helicopters circled overhead, jeered and cheered by the assembly.
It took up to a quarter of an hour to get the full length of the column in motion; several banners, including one from Queen’s University, marked off sections of the vast crowd. We were leaving behind an estate virtually deserted; a few old women peered out of windows and younger children galloped on the pavement alongside their parents.
To avoid trouble areas – Bligh’s Lane – the march advanced by a zigzag route. South past the clipped lawns of the City Cemetery dropping all the way down to the level of the Foyle. Then we turned north under the graveyard and moved along towards Brandywell, a small village of neat houses and narrow streets. The parade never passed outside the ‘no-go’ area. In Brandywell there were locally erected speed limits: ‘30 m.p.h. – you have been warned.’ Any engine racing into Brandywell at speed is taken as an Army invader. An improvised scoreboard announces ‘IRA –10’; the other score is unrecorded.
The march proceeds smoothly. Occasionally diversions are made to avoid dismantling the circle of barricades around the no-go. Old cars, a hijacked lorry, paving stones and wire. To travel a mile from Creggan to the city, we walk nearly four miles. The last stage leads through the Bogside itself; even here we weave our way through derelict cars, the twisting streets of the old village and the geometrical maisonettes built to replace the houses burnt in 1969 by the RUC and B-Specials. The march heads away from the main entrance to Bogside emerging west of William Street, the last leg of the proposed route to the Guildhall.
Passing the Bishop’s house, we notice the grey head nodding in a curtained window. Distance lends him enchantment. A Creggan woman in front of me curses the prelate: ‘Why isn’t he out here marchin’ with us instead o’ gapin’?’ By now the head of the procession has probably reached the inevitable Army barrier, for we have moved beyond the no-go. Because of the vast crowd it is impossible to see what is happening ahead; all is quiet however. The carnival is replaced by a steady sobriety; something will happen – but what, and how much of it?
The procession is now halted. We are in William Street, just at the back of the James Street Presbyterian Church. There are Army snipers positioned in the skylights of James Street houses, and on the asphalt roof of the GPO sorting office. Some kids lob stones at these outlying troops from a patch of waste ground cleared since ’69 by arson or police action – God knows which. They are a small scatter of children, maybe ten in all. Most of the soldiers pull back to the rear of the sorting office roof beyond the range of the stones. One, however, pauses to fire a single round of live ammunition from his narrow-barrelled gun; presumably he intended to miss. That lead bullet ought to have been an omen.
The Army were firing CS gas but the wind blew it back on top of their own positions. Some water dye blew through the air like silk; there were sounds of explosions in William Street, but distant and insignificant. As the wind began to change sides, the crowd felt the effects of the CS. Most people moved back into Rossville Street, the main entrance to the Bog. One or two girls collapsed from the gas; John’s ambulance men carried them away. K.M. was trying to get the crowd to move right back to Free Derry Corner where Bernadette Devlin and Lord Brockway were waiting to address the rally. But in the broad thoroughfare of Rossville, inside a traditional no-go area, the crowd felt secure. They moved back only far enough to keep out of the gas. People were standing round in little knots, discussing the outcome, estimating the turn-out, ignoring the oncoming attack. Suddenly, just after four, armoured cars raced into Rossville Street under the colossal flats. The platform party had just announced the first speaker as shots flew about, live shots which screamed overhead. As I dropped down I saw the troop carriers racing into the crowd on the Wall side; shots were coming from the direction of the moving cars. The crowd flopped to the ground, staggering in a pulsing movement into the narrowing funnel of the old Bogside. Girls and middle-aged women crying, men dashing for shelter in the courts of the maisonettes. The firing continued but in the centre of this crawling and shrieking I could isolate no individual feature. After two or three of these pathetic leap-frog retreats we were beyond the narrow mouth of Free Deny and the maze of Bogside opened up with innumerable escapes and blind alleys. From the shouting behind us, it was clear the troops were coming on against the crowd. The little patches of lawn beside each maisonette squirmed under us, treacherous footing edged with vicious foot-high palings. One fall could lead to death by suffocation or stampede. Four of us regrouped in the comparative safety of a backyard; we must keep moving into the heart of the Bog, into the labyrinth. There was no knowing how far the Army would come, now they had started.
A substantial trickle of people, mostly young boys, was moving to the left through the short staccato alleyways. We went with them. We had no energy, nervous or physical, to keep us running. L. was sobbing, on the teeth of hysterics. We were coming towards the edge of the no-go area, into streets where the houses revealed the reflected glory of the real middle-class suburbs beyond the burnt-out cars and rubble heaps. There was a small shop where we bought cigarettes, my hand thick and unsteady handling the coins. No hope of a drink on a Sunday, even in Bogside. We began to advance towards Lone Moor Road keeping south of Bligh’s Lane; we were retracing the steps of 20,000 people.
By now it was half-four at least and darkness was not far ahead. If we didn’t get out before dark, we would either be trapped in the inevitable gun-battle which the Provos would ‘start’ or be picked up by the Army – if they actually penetrated into the heart of the no-go. As a short-cut we decided to reach Creggan through the City Cemetery. Maybe there were six or eight more or less travelling in a group. As we walked over the gravel paths we took time to notice the names on the stones – Protestant names, with an occasional military rank instead of RIP; this was the loyalist section of the graveyard but it was also our way out. The ping of a single shot woke us up and all eight scrambled in towards the boundary wall. A sniper opening up against the troops somewhere, impossible to say how near; the cemetery is a nest for guerrilla activity. We quit walking and took to a run.
It was still light when we reached the car. We took time to check that no arms had been planted in the boot before moving off to seek a way out of the defensive ring, now become a circle of troops. It was important to synchronise our thoughts so that our answers might not conflict.
‘We were visiting Mrs D. ... Right?’
‘Lives on West Way.’
‘Sorry, don’t know but it’s a blue door.’
‘Get rid of anything which might link you to the march.’
So I threw out of the car window a handkerchief into which red dye had run years ago in the wash – it could be mistaken (or not mistaken) for the purple dye from the cannon. And the car, backfiring disastrously, began to nose round for a way out.
We found it at Lewis Street; the soldiers didn’t seem interested in questioning anyone.
Later in the evening we learned that 13 had been shot dead.