Derry City Cemetery Series: The tragic tale of two teenagers caught up in Derry’s Troubles
28 Jun 2019 7:00 PM
One of the most tragic tales to emerge from Derry in the last 50 years joins together the memories of two former pupils of the same Creggan school killed as a result of the Troubles. The first of the two teenagers who were shot dead within a few days of each other, was a soldier in the British Army, whilst the second victim was killed by the British Army. 1972 was the single most bloody year of the Troubles with 492 people losing their lives as a result of violence-amongst these were 108 British soldiers. At around 6.50am on May 21 that year, the remains of 18-year-old Royal Irish Ranger William best were found partially hooded on a stretch of waste ground at William Street. Upon examination, it was found that his body had been beaten and that he had died as a result of a single pistol shot to the head. The difference between William Best however was, that unlike the other 107 soldiers killed that year, he was from Rathkeele Way in the republican stronghold of Creggan. He was one of the seven children of William and Annie Best. The murder of William Best was later claimed by the Official IRA who said the teenager was acting as a spy for the British Army. British Army policy at that time excluded British regiments from serving in Northern Ireland and as a result the Derry born soldier spent his time in Germany and Cyprus. Despite the obvious dangers and all military advice and family warnings not to come home on leave, Willie Best returned to Derry on May 15, 1972 especially as tensions in the city were still extremely high just four months after Bloody Sunday. The Best family have also always maintained that around two days before Willie’s return a local priest came to their home and warned them that former schoolmates of the young soldier were planning to hand him over to the IRA. William Best left his home in Creggan on the afternoon of Saturday afternoon of May 20. It was the last time that his family saw him alive. Witnesses reported seeing him in Derry city centre and that he visited a shop at the top of Waterloo Street where he bought an album of Irish rebel songs as well as republican lapel badges. However, accounts of his whereabouts end at around 8.45pm that night and its assumed that it was around this time he was abducted. Anne Gallagher, Willie Best’s sister said: “His murder had a shocking effect on our family. But, we got his body back unlike a lot of other poor families who didn’t get their loved one’s back. “He was a good soul-he would have given you his last penny. He was working in the kitchen of the City Hotel from he was no age just to hand in whatever money he could.” Shockingly, it was not until after the discovery of her brother’s body on the edge of the Bogside that Anne discovered a horrifying fact. On the night of the murder she had stayed with her grandmother at Bridge Street close to the city centre. At just 13-years-old, Anne was a volunteer in the Order of Malta and went on duty each Sunday at St Eugene’s Cathedral to help provide first aid to anyone injured in the fierce riots that were a daily occurrence at the time. The route to the Cathedral took her along William Street and that morning she saw a body bag used to ferry the dead on the patch of waste ground. She said that she offered up a prayer for whoever was inside it before finishing the last few hundred yards of her walk to the church. It was not for several hours afterwards she discovered it was her brother’s body inside the bag. In his 1973 book, War and an Irish Town, journalist Eamonn McCann addressed the murder to a member of the Official IRA. The coldness of the response captures the callousness of all sides involved in the conflict. “Once we had him (Willie Best) there, there was nothing we could do but execute him. “Our military orders after Bloody Sunday were to kill every British soldier we could. It didn’t say anything about local soldiers. He was a British soldier and that’s all there is to it.” The murder of Willie Best caused a wave of public disgust in Derry and as a result, hundreds of women descended upon the headquarters of the Official IRA in the Bogside and demanded that they, the Provisional IRA and the British Army cease hostilities immediately. The following day, the Officials declared that they would cease all offensive operations and only act in defence of ‘no go’ areas if required. Willie Best’s sister Anne said: “It has been suggested that he knew his killers; perhaps even, they were boys he was at school with. We were told later that when they had him, it took about six of them to hold him down and put the hood on him.” Contemporary local newspaper reports recorded that approximately 5,000 people attended Willie Best’s funeral on May 23, 1972 including hundreds of local school children and their teachers. A guard of honour was provided by Two days before Willie Best was shot dead (May 19, 1972), a 15-year-old boy had gathered with a few of his friends at a tunnelled entrance to houses in the Bogside. Manus Deery who had recently begun his working life, had just left a local chip shop and was talking when at around 10.30pm a shot rang out from a British Army observation post on the city wall’s. The bullet ricocheted around the tunnel before striking the teenager on the back of the skull and lacerating his brain. He was pronounced dead a short while later at Altnagelvin Hospital. In April 2017, a Coroner sitting at Derry Magistrates’ Court finally pronounced that teenager from Limewood Street was “totally innocent” and posed a threat to no one. But, the declaration of Manus Deery’s innocence was the culmination of a 45-year-old campaign to clear his name from the decade’s long insistence by the British Army that the now deceased soldier William Glasgow, previously known as Soldier A, had fired after sighting a gunman. An initial Inquest after the killing recorded an open verdict meaning that officially scope was left to blame the teenage victim for having involvement in paramilitary activity. This is one of the main reasons why the Deery family pursued the case through the courts for over 40 years. At the second inquest in 2016 however, it emerged that the RUC Special Branch had passed a secret memo to the British Army that in their view, Manus Deery had no link to any republican organisation. Many of Manus Deery’s friends who were there on the night of the killing gave evidence at the second Inquest and each contested that there was no gunman in the area at the time. However, the final testimony at the Inquest was given by journalist Kevin Myers who was an RTE reporter at the time and was inside the Bogside Inn when the shooting took place. Mr Myers said he had been in Derry for several days before the killing took place making contact with representatives from both communities and within both factions of the IRA. He said as he left the pub he heard a shot ring out, but he thought it was a bomb and threw himself to the ground. When he got to his feet, he said he found he was just a few yards from where the wounded teenager was lying. The journalist clearly stated that he had not seen any gunman in the vicinity at the time and commented that there was a lot of IRA sniper activity in Derry going unreported at the time. “After the murder of Ranger Best, the Official IRA came under pressure from the community but they were able to open arms dumps and put weapons into the boots of cars for removal without being seen by the security forces,” Kevin Meyers said. Manus Deery's sister, Helen, who campaigned for a fresh inquest, said: "We always knew Manus was innocent." "It has been a long drawn-out process and there's been lots of hurdles along the way, but it's been worth it," she said. Speaking after the verdict in the fresh inquest she added: "My emotions today are I love my brother, so I am just a bit sentimental and peaceful too. "I'll probably go the cemetery at some stage today. But this was about Manus and all the witnesses and clearing all their names." She had also previously said that there was not a day went by that she did not think of her brother. “He was a lovely young fella. Two weeks before he was shot, he had just got his first job and he had met up with his friends at the chip shop to mark his first ever pay packet. The chips were lying all around his body after he was shot.” William Best and Manus Deery, were both former pupils at St Joseph’s Secondary School in Derry separated by just three years. They lie buried side by side in Derry City Cemetery. CAPTION: Helen Deery pictured at the grave of her brother Manus who was shot dead by the British Army in May of 1972.
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