By Garrett Hargan
Nationalist communities in Derry were all too aware of civil rights injustices in 1969, none more so than Eamonn Melaugh, who had been on the streets agitating in the years prior to the Battle of the Bogside.
He was 33-years-old at the time and, as a father who would go to care for twenty-six children altogether, he didn’t want to hand on the same legacy to them.
Eamonn returned from working England in 1959 after refusing to be conscripted into the British armed forces.
“I got the sack when this became public, I sent my wife and child home and I worked on in England for a while. But I eventually came home in 1959, and in 1960 I put a paid advertisement in the Belfast Telegraph, ‘Wanted: Men of concrete actions to do something constructive about housing and employment.’
“I got thirteen replies, three of them Protestants, the first meeting was held in Willie Healy’s accordion band shed on the Lecky Road. The Protestants turned up for the first meeting and never appeared again.
“I organised the first demonstration against employment, there were ten or eleven of us marched from the Diamond, across Ferryquay Street, down Abercorn Rd., Carlisle Road around the roundabout and back up again.
“We had placards calling for state sponsored industry and people were standing laughing at us. I was trying to gauge what degree of militancy was in the air at that time, there was none, total and complete apathy.”
A couple of months later he took over the dole office, he explained, where he encouraged the unemployed to burn their signing on cards. He kept “agitating” on his own and canvassed for housing at Wapping Lane, houses every bit as bad as the Bogside, with the difference being there was only one family per house.
But, in his view, it was a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ violence would erupt given the political climate at the time.
During the Battle of the Bogside (BOTB) the pirate radio station known as Radio Free Derry was operational, providing a source of information and motivational words. Eamonn’s time was divided between the streets and the roof of the Rossville flats from where he would broadcast.
Mr Melaugh was concerned about the safety of young people who used the flats to rain missiles down upon the RUC. Eamonn feared they might’ve fallen off the roof had the RUC stormed the building.
“Eamonn McCann got the radio from somebody, and I sort of took over doing it. It was a bit of a nonsense ye know. It was a piece of pre-historic equipment and you had to string out about two hundred yards of cable to get a signal.
“On one occasion, in a family called the Brown’s, the army came in and found the radio underneath a bed where I had hidden it. We used to hide it in different places. And the amazing thing is, the sergeant went running out to the officer in charge and said ‘we’ve found Free Derry Radio’, and he said, ‘forget about it we’ve been here for two and a half minutes’. That’s the time they had to raid a house.
“I had a book on socialism and I used to read out paragraphs and I’d have a played music on a hand-cranked record player that was found in a derelict house on the Foyle Road somewhere. It was pretty chaotic but I do suppose it was important.
“During the Battle of the Bog I was at the top of Rossville Street flats, there was an annex there and I spent three days there on and off. At one point two men came running in, in a state of high agitation, to tell me that they interpreted a radio message from the city engineer, it was an offer to the police that he would turn the water off to the Bogside and I said, ‘well if he turns the water off to the Bogside, we’ll turn the gas off to the whole of Derry’. The gas yard was in the Free Derry area.
“It was comical but could’ve been very serious.”
Over the radio he suggested building barricades to defend with the belief that the RUC were going to become exhausted. The threat of the B-Specials being drafted in caused great anxiety.
“There would’ve been a cataclysmic explosion of deaths and I was praying against that,” he said.
Throughout the battle, Eamonn spoke continually, telling people to withdraw behind barricades. “I wasn’t home for three days I had to keep sending messages home to my wife to tell her I was okay.”
It very quickly became obvious that the BOTB was going to go on for days so on the radio Eamonn called on the British government to send its troops into Northern Ireland, it was something he’d done before at a public meeting in the Guildhall.
“I’m a Republican but why I was advocating sending in the army because it would be an admission that the Unionist establishment had failed and England would have to become more responsible for the dirty back yard they created here in Northern Ireland.”
When the army arrived he ran home to get his camera to take photos of them setting up.
“The Unionists learnt nothing of substance from that, that they would have to change their policies towards Catholics.”
Mr Melaugh knew it was only a matter of time before militant Republicans “took exception” to the British army.
“They didn’t come in to save the people of the Bogside, they came over to shore up the Unionist party. The first day was very ominous, the Bogside was sealed off, that made clear their intentions to ‘keep these animals in the one cage’.
“It was a temporary respite for the Unionist government, for the RUC particularly, Britain is the cause of all the trouble for the 900 years that they’ve been here.
Eamonn views the BOTB as an “extremely significant event” which “proved to be worthwhile”.
“I was against it at the time, I thought there should’ve been other means of tackling a corrupt gerrymandering system and that was through socialist organisations.
“But it worked out in the short term to be a very positive thing.”
Since then Derry has made “quantum leaps” in terms of housing and other social issues but he believes “the best is yet to come” and it is unfortunate that “it took violence to make it happen.”
CAPTION: Eamonn Melaugh pictured broadcasting on Radio Free Derry in August 1969.
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