On 5 January 1969, some two hundred and eighty years after a lowly apprentice boy had shouted the immortal words, “No Surrender”, from Derry’s City Walls and slammed the city gates shut in the face of James IIs army, a local republican activist, John “Cacker” Casey, painted the equally immortal words “You are now entering Free Derry” on the gable wall of a house in the Bogside and the barricades went up.
Tensions had been brewing in the area for some time with allegations of civil rights abuses against local Catholics – a situation of “One Man, No Vote” had long been the mantra maintained. The situation reached breaking point on 5 January 1969 when a civil right march from Belfast was viciously attacked at Burntollet Bridge about five miles out of Derry and then again by the Craigavon Bridge as it entered the city and just before it reached the Guildhall where a rally was held. When rioting broke out at the rally the police drove the rioters into the Bogside area and while causing some wanton damage to residents and property on the outskirts of the Bogside, the police did not go in after them. That evening the events relayed in my opening paragraph occurred and the 30 odd years “Troubles”, as the conflict in Northern Ireland became known, was underway.
For the next three years the self declared autonomous nationalist area of “Free Derry” encompassing the Bogside and Creggan areas became an intermittent no-go area for British authorities.
Right through the Troubles the slogan and the gable wall remained an enduring image of nationalist resistance.
It was from here that that Martin McGuinness (who went on to become Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007) declared in his first public speech that “It doesn’t matter what John Hume says. We’ll fight on until we get a united Ireland”. John Hume was, at the time, leader of the more moderate nationalist SDLP party and McGuinness a local leader in the IRA.
When the cramped and battle weary terrace houses in the area were knocked down the gable wall was retained and the area became known as Free Derry Corner. Free Derry Corner became the focal point of annual commemorations of Bloody Sunday, when 13 marchers were killed by British soldiers in this very area in 1972.
Free Derry Corner, now a site of some historical significance, was handed over to the Department of the Environment’s Heritage service in 2000 and came under the care of an Ulster Unionist minister in the new power sharing executive. Such are the paradoxes of Irish politics.
Over the years the gable wall has been repainted many times and while it is best known in its usual white wall with black lettering incarnation it has been painted many colours over time. In 2012 the wall was painted red and black and an anarchist flag replaced the more commonly flown Irish tricolor to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of John McGuffian, a Belfast anarchist and civil rights leader who had taken part in the 1969 civil rights march referred to earlier. In 2007 it was painted pink for Gay Pride Week and in 2006 its traditional black and white colours were inverted for that year’s Bloody Sunday commemorations. Throughout the troubles and post removal of the houses the back of the wall has been used for also sorts of local and international nationalist/ left wing/ anti-war and other advertising and propaganda.
The wall now sits amid landscaped gardens at the centre of an area full of mural covered walls and memorials to events of the Troubles. Today, armoured tanks and guns have been replaced with coach loads of tourists and, indeed, it is not unknown for groups of British soldiers to pose for photographs at Free Derry Corner.
My second photo has been taken from the British Universities Film & Video Council website.
Address: Lecky Road and Fahan Street Intersection
Directions: In the Bogside
This entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on many trips to Londonderry/Derry. I suggest you continue with my next entry – The Peace Bridge across the Foyle – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – The City on the Foyle.