By Marianne Flood
As the Battle of the Bogside raged Dermie McClenaghan’s house in Wellington Street became the ‘radical centre’ of the action.
Derry Labour party member Mr McClenaghan was heavily involved social issues at the time and helped rehouse scores of local families by putting them into empty houses, where they lived as squatters.
“It seemed to me like the right thing to do,” he said.
“I look the problem straight in the eye and do something about it.”
Speaking from his home in the Waterside last week he recalled the action in and around his family home in Wellington Street during the Bogside Siege of August 1969.
For him, the Battle of the Bogside was inevitable after a People's Democracy march from Belfast to Derry was attacked by police on Burntollet Bridge on January 4 of that year.
“There was a terrible riot that night in Derry,” he explained.
“I lived in in 7 Wellington Street, which was beside Free Derry Corner and the police came in and battered everybody.
“They went round St Columb’s Wells and they really upset people and scared people terribly.
“They came up Wellington Street and sat opposite my house and God knows there were a lot of radicals in my home that night.
“They went out the back of my house and climbed over a wall to get into Nelson Street which ran parallel to Wellington Street.
“The police really were very wicked that night, I have to say that.
“That angered people so terribly, and I don’t believe that anger was expressed properly.
“The space wasn’t there to express it.”
With the Apprentice Boys march looming on August 12 it was widely expected there would be trouble.
Mr McClenaghan was one of a group of men who went to talk to the Apprentice Boys about how it could be avoided.
“Everybody was really scared about what was going happen on the 12th of August,” he said.
“The remnants of the Citizen’s Action Committee still existed in a very disparate way.
“Myself, John Hume, Ivan Cooper, Paddy Doherty, Paul Grace, and maybe Michael Canavan I think, we got dispensed up to the Memorial Hall the day before the 12th to talk peace.
“We went in there and said ‘well, we are going to do our best to make sure there is no violence tomorrow’.
“It was organised that we were going to have someone standing at all the entrances, or more accurately the exits, to the Bogside to talk to the rioters and say things like ‘now lads, we’ll have no bother today’.
“It’s like trying to stop boulder rolling down up a hill.”
As Mr McClenaghan predicted, their pleas fell on deaf ears. From his post on he saw the Battle of the Bogside begin.
“The police came rushing up William Street, battering everyone in their sight along with about 400 Protestants people.
“And they all rushed into the Bogside, because I was watching them.
“That’s really what started the Bogside Siege.
Mr McClenaghan had sent his mother to stay with his sister on the outskirts of the city because he knew there would be trouble.
Their family home in Wellington Street played host to a number of key players during the Battle of Bogside.
“It as a very political house, not constitutional politics, but radicals the left I suppose.” said Mr McClenaghan.
“During the battle of the Bogside that wee house was the home of the radicals
“Eamon McCann sat there putting together something called the Barricade Bulletin. It was wonderful.
“He would write socialist stuff in the Barricade Bulletin and everyone would hand it out around the Bog and all.
“It’s important to say this at the start, what was happening in the Bogside, there was no ideological dominance there.
“There were all these wee French radicals and a lot of people from Holland that stayed there.
“I actually had a phone call from a Dutch man a few days ago who was there, and I hadn’t spoken to him in 50 years.
“That home was the radical centre, it was quite a remarkable experience living there.
“That wee house I was in was the pulse of radicalism.
“And Paddy Bogside’s house was seen as the centre of the Bogside’s activities, he was very liberally respectable. There were sandwiches for the people on the barricades.”
Radio Free Derry was set up in the front room of 7 Wellington Street, and a photo of it appeared on the front page of the Irish Times.
“My sister was married to a Garda Siochana down South and she saw the picture and she recognised my mother’s crucifix hanging above the radio equipment and she nearly had a fit,” he recalled
“It was a very powerful thing to have a radio station.
“It was a propaganda machine.
“There were people up shooting the breeze all the time about music, politics, football and sport.
“Anybody who wanted to get on got on it.
“Radio Free Derry was a very powerful instrument.
“In a sense it gave us a certain legitimacy and importance, ye know.”
Eventually Free Derry Radio was relocated to the top of the Rossville Street flats, due to fears the McClenaghan’s home in Wellington Street would be raided by the police.
Back then only one home in Wellington Street had a telephone, the Doherty’s.
Mrs Doherty generously took calls for all her neighbours and during the Battle of Bogside one came through for Mrs McClenaghan from her good friend in America Anna Gunns.
As his mother was away Mr McClenaghan took the call and was told Mrs Gunns was planning a visit to Ireland.
“My sister Briege shouted up the street to ask who had been on the phone and I said ‘It’s the Gunns, they’re coming from America’.
“All hell broke loose. You see Anna Gunns had said ‘tell your mother we’re coming in about four weeks’ time’.
“It caused ructions on the street, people thought there was guns coming.
“And it spread like a forest fire around the Bogside.
“There were people from the Bogside and Brandywell queueing up to get their name down for a gun.”
Mr McClenaghan is keen to stress how the community pulled together throughout the Battle of the Bogside.
“During that time everyone was unified completely, which is quite remarkable.
“There was no deviance or crime because everyone was stuck together.
“Not even in a political, ideological way because there were so many differences between people.
“There was that amazing unification of people during that time.
“They were a unit. The unity was incredible when you think about it.
“It wasn’t just a unity based on togetherness, it was a unity based on the belief that the Bogside was morally correct in in doing what they were doing. That’s such an important thing and that is what cemented people together.
“That’s so important they were breaking civil rules but not moral rules.
“They felt they weren’t doing anything morally wrong.
“That is something so important to a community that was actually brought up with a Catholic ethic or a Christian ethic.”
This unity spanned the generations and saw pensioners and teens join forces to defend the area.
“Everyone stood up for everybody and fought side by side,” continued Mr McClenaghan.
“There’s another thing which is related to that point, OAPs worked with children to defend the area.
“There were youngsters and older people on the corner Nelson Street which was parallel to Wellington Street and they were all making petrol bombs there and there were old people sitting telling younger people to be careful and they were actually providing them bottles.
“There were thousands of bottles stolen from the Old City Dairy.
“That unity was not just a structural unity, there were a whole lot of personal relationships at the same time.
“The quiet people who you would never even have seen going to a march, they were out giving people a hand.
“It’s remarkable, the unity of purpose and the unity and togetherness in the Bogside and that sense of moral righteousness what bound people together as well as human relationships.
“The significance of the Bogside is still in people’s heads.
“No matter what people’s politics were they were proud of it.
“People are still very proud of Free Derry.”
On August 14 the British Soldiers arrived in Derry and Mr McClenaghan watched them march in.
“I was standing outside where Paddy Gorman’s shop down the Lecky Road and I saw them coming, but I knew the soldiers were coming because I got a phone call from Belfast telling me, but no one else knew this.
“When I told them on the street they all got excited. Well, not so much excited as sort of pensive and curious but they knew it was significant.
“I told Nell [McCaffetry] and Eamonn [McCann] and we walked towards the corner of William Street and down they came.
“I was wile anxious.
“I have a great respect for Eamon and I wanted him to be one of the people at the front that would speak.
“But Paddy Doherty came down and sort of introduced himself to the soldiers and said to them ‘there is nobody to come in here’.
“The police were dispersed and he gave a speech through a megaphone and that was that.”
Mr McClenaghan says the unity of the people of the Bogside will always stay with him.
“There was no dominant political ideology reigned over anything that happened during the Bogside Siege.
“You could say that Paddy Doherty’s Derry Citizen’s Defence Association did, there were a lot of liberal people in that and a few Republicans, but they didn’t exert any influence that was noticed so there was no ideological dominance at all in the Bogside.”
After the fighting had finished people took to the streets to celebrate.
“The Dubliners and the great Tommy Makem were part of the free Derry Fleadh Cheoil,” said Mr McClenaghan.
“This musical festival was organised by Eamonn McCann and journalist Mary Holland
“During it The Dubliners and Tommy sang in my house for hours to the delight of crowds of listeners in the street outside.
“I enjoyed that wee house in Wellington Street because I had the most wonderful time.
“All the political radicals from all over Europe and America even were there.
“Wee Bernadette [Devlin] stayed there too.”
“It really was an experience.”
CAPTION: Pictured are Dermie McClengahan and Eamonn McCann in Wellington Street. In the background are Nancy and Sam Ramsey, parents of former SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey speaking to Charlie Morrison.
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