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Originally published: Reality, No. 7, Centre Pages
’68 D.H.A.C. ’69
On a cold February day last year four women and two young men sat in the Corporation Housing Dept. discussing the housing position in the city, and in particular the case of the four women present, all of whom lived in flats at 8, Limavady Road. Their landlord within the past few days had knocked off their electric light and they had to live in candle-lit rooms. Their family doctors were concerned at the dangers of such and they hoped for action from the local council.
This was the beginning of the Derry Housing Action Committee [D.H.A.C], which grew from that small group of people which included Mrs. McNamee, Dillon, Olphert and Quigley. The two young men were Derry man Danny McGinley and a Magee University College lecturer, English-born Mr. Steward Crehan.
Meetings to organise the homeless were held at Limavady Rd., and at Mr. Crehan’s flat at 98, Beechwood Avenue. The inaugural meeting was held at the City Hotel on St. Patrick’s Day week-end at which it was decided to go to the March monthly meeting of Derry Corporation to read a prepared address and to disrupt the proceedings. This type of activity remained a monthly date for the D.H.A.C. even up to the last Council meeting in March 1969.
For a period of almost three months the committee’s activities were, as one might put it, strictly within the law. Many members thought that such protests to date were mild but it was not until June that the first really militant act had taken place. At 11 am on the morning of the 22nd, at the caravan home of the Wilson Family in which a young child had died, directed linked to their living conditions, members assembled. The caravan was dragged across the main Lone Moor bus-route at the Hamilton St-Ann St junction. It remained there for some hours on the 22nd and blocked the road again on the 29th & 30th of the same month.
Eleven people appeared before the Bishop Street Court in July. They were George Finnbarr O’Doherty (23), John White (21), Eamonn McCann (25), Eamonn Melaugh (35), Matthew O’Leary (29), John Wilson (28), Jeremiah Mallett (43), John McShane (35), Pat J. Coyle (33), Robert Mitchell (19), and Janet Wilcock the last Labour candidate in the bye-election. All were bound over for a period of two years to keep the peace and Melaugh, McCann, White and Wilson were fined £10 each, and Mitchel and Ms. Wilcock £5 each.
The Wilsons have since been given a home at 417 Bishop Street.
During the court hearings one of the most militant D.H.A.C. protests took place during the Official Opening of the lower deck of Craigavon Bridge. J.J. O’Hara, Tony O’Doherty, Roddy O’Carlin, Neil O’Donnell and Sean McGeehan sat down to block the first vehicle, the Mayor’s official car. The R.U.C. moved in and removed the protestors while a few other members led the homeless in singing “WE SHALL OVERCOME”. At an early stage in the singing, R.U.C. walked into the crowd and removed Finnbarr O’Doherty. At this, a non-member of the D.H.A.C., John Lafferty obstructed Sergeant Albert Joseph Taylor in the execution of his duty. All were taken away in police cars and in the less ‘comfortable’ tenders to the ‘VIC’.
In Bishop Street Court once again the R.M. sat with a puzzled face as the defendants entered their seats. The case ended with Lafferty and the sit-down protesters being bound over for two years to keep the peace and O’Doherty was fined £5 for “conducting” and prompting the singing of “WE SHALL OVERCOME” – which the court considered to be disorderly behaviour.
Neil O’Donnell and Roddy O’Carlin refused to enter into bail and ‘keep the peace’ and so each served a period of one month in H.M. Prison, Crumlin Road, Belfast. Their imprisonment was the centre of several protests in many areas and several radical organisations held pickets in Belfast, London and Cork. On the evening of their release a group of D.H.A.C. members and supporters met them at the Duke Street railway station and carried them shoulder high for some distance.
Regular picketing of ‘Rachmanists’ and public buildings continued all the time and “REALITY”, the official organ of the D.H.A.C. was being published so as to keep the funds of the organisation capable of fighting for the city’s estimated 1,650 homeless families. Public meetings were help to increase membership and to keep the homeless informed as to what action the committee intended to take next as part of our militant campaign.
Rent strikes were also organised so as to force Rachmanists to install fire escapes and issue rent books. Many it seemed would never give in to these demands but as time passed each broke down rather than end up without their weekly rents from the homeless. Repairs were also demanded and one landlord had to put £1,100 out for just one of his houses.
In the month of August the call was made by the D.H.A.C. to the N. Ireland Civil Rights Association to hold the first ever civil rights march in the city. In a matter of weeks plans were being made with the Nicra executive for a march on October 5th. The first meeting was held in the upstairs of a bar in William Street and others in local hotels. At one meeting only 57 stewards attended and the funds for organising the march came out of the organisers’ own pockets in the first weeks of organising. Some organisations which promised financial support failed to keep their promises and so the bulk of the finance which was required to defray expenses was collected chiefly in the Creggan Estate and from local shop-owners. Placards were made by a sub-committee in a house on Long Tower Street, sometimes into the early hours of the morning.
Little did the organisers and those who were making the preparations for the march realise that October 5th 1968 would be entered in the pages of history and that at long last the local people of Derry would arise from fifty years of slumber.
Letter to Reality-page 3
We the undersigned, former residents of the Council Chamber, wish to express our sincere thanks for the marvellous support given to us during our seven-week squat-in at Derry Guildhall. We will remain eternally grateful to the Derry Housing Action Committee for their moral, financial and active support. If it had not been for such support we have no doubt that we would still reside at our former addresses and live in the horrific conditions prevailing there. On behalf of ourselves and our children, we wish also to include in these thanks those members of the general public who displayed such great kindness. May God reward for the interest shown in our plight.
Joe Clarke, formerly of 92 Bishop Street.
Daniel Harkin, f/o 40 Carlisle Rd.
Willie Healy, f/o 30c Dove Grds.
Patsy Bradley, f/o Bishop Street.
Bridget & Johnny Bond, f/o Foyle Road.
M. Cruickshank, f/o Spencer Rd.
Nellie Gorman, f/o 55 Spencer Rd.
John Parke, address not given
Joe Rush, f/o 15 Orchard St.
John Gillespie. f/o The Diamond
Dan Kerr, f/o Donegal Place.
Editor’s Comments: The action of the above families proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that direct action brings results. The local authorities have been forced to re-open many sound dwellings to accommodate these families, and would never have done so but for militant action. The D.H.A.C. were not demanding new homes, but rather we did demand that the Corporation allocate to each a better abode in which each family could bring up their children in a healthy environment. There is no doubt that our policy is the correct one and has brought the desired results.
Buoyed up by the fact that the Coalisland to Dungannon march on August 24th had been, in the main, peaceful, and deemed to be highly successful, the Derry Housing Action Committee formally requested the Civil Rights Association executive to consider holding its next demonstration in the city to highlight the need for democratic reforms, and specifically the plight of hundreds of local homeless families. The NICRA executive responded, a few weeks later, indicating their approval with the proviso that any organising committee should be as broadly based as possible. The date for the next march was scheduled for Saturday, October 5th, at 3 PM, with the agreed assembly point being the Waterside railway station.
As preparations began and the local press reported the proposed march, key organisers. including this writer, were frequently ‘taken in’ by police to the upstairs back office of District Inspector Ross McGimpsey. It became crystal clear, almost delicately over coffee and Jaffa cakes, that the Minister of Home Affairs felt strongly that this march would be “highly ill-advised”.
The Minister’s excuse, if one was needed, came with an announcement by an alliance of the Liverpool Monday Club, the local Murray Club and the Apprentice Boys that they would march the same route. Such could not be viewed as a traditional parade as October was never part of their usual ‘marching season’.
An order banning the civil rights march was duly delivered to four key organisers, which included Eamonn McCann, and this correspondent, only a few days before October 5th. The proposed counter-demonstration, as anticipated, never actually materialised, yet the green light had clearly been given by the Orange/Unionist establishment to sectarianise the civil rights cause. All the organisers were on the Left, and our appeal was directed at all sections of the working-class who were victims of the society in which we found ourselves. The Orange/Unionist reaction, although expected, was deeply regretted as Protestant friends would certainly stay away, fearing subsequent intimidation, or worst.
Derry’s first civil rights march should be remembered as the march that nearly never happened. Within hours of the ban being imposed the NICRA executive were communicating their concerns at the likely consequences and instructed the local organising committee to convene an emergency meeting at the City Hotel for the evening of October 4th. They too were taking everything right up to the line. At this meeting the proceedings were at times heated and lasted for around two hours. The press were of course excluded. About seventy were in attendance and bursts of applause occurred at intervals.
There were a few adjournments as NICRA leaders went into conclave. The respective Derry groups, asserting their independence, followed their example and held their counter-conclaves. The Derry organisers were of one mind and held firm. The NICRA executive broke ranks after it was made abundantly clear from the Derry delegates that we would march, with or without either NICRA’s blessing or participation. All the spokesmen, like seasoned politicians, emerged from the angry meeting saying that although there had been ‘”minor disagreements, in the final analysis, it was ‘unanimously ‘ decided to proceed, from the railway station to the Diamond on the route scheduled”.
In case of early morning arrests a few of the organisers did not sleep in their own beds on the night of October 4th. Early next morning the delighted Member for West Belfast, Gerry Fitt (later to be Lord Fitt) was on the phone confirming that three British MPs had answered the call from Derry. They were Mr. Russell Kerr, Member for Feltham, Middlesex, his wife Anne, Member for Rochester, and Mr. John Ryan, Member for Uxbridge.
At the railway station the crowd of some 400 gradually gathered. This correspondent, surprisingly, was the only one who took the precaution of adorning a crash-helmet, kindly provided by an Englishman who taught woodwork at the local technical college. It had arrived the evening before, with him worriedly pointing out that the RUC “are not like our Bobbies back home”. He joked about having painted a large eye on the back, suggesting that a certain well known agitator might need one.
Across the River Foyle at Brandywell some 7,000 fans had, regretfully, opted for the excitement of a football match, which we had not figured in our planning, when fixing the date for the march. Some 250 police were on duty in the immediate vicinity of the station. Although seemingly non-accountable they became transparent. They had blocked off Distillery Brae with a rope, making it obvious that this first part of the route into Spencer Road, was being denied us. To re-enforce this point a barricade of police tenders were soon drawn up behind the rope. It was evident they wished the march to move off and flow along Duke Street, which in those days offered neither a lane or an alleyway as a potential exit point. Recalling to mind D.I. McGimpsey’s sarcastic parting remarks, at our last meeting, McCann and this writer, had no doubt whatsoever, that we would be stopped, by sheer numbers and sectarian brute force.
The civic rights supporters, however, remained calm, while expressing concern, yet all were determined to participate regardless. The tension increased as the RUC made an eleventh-hour appeal. County Inspector William Meharg read the prohibition order to the crowd, adding, ominously, but no doubt for media purposes: “We want to give a warning especially to those who are not interested, for their own safety and the safety of women and children”. No one moved or thought his apparent concern was worthy of thanks. His had been an ago-old message for those seeking change, which required no elaboration for those socially-committed people who had made a conscious decision to assemble at Duke Street on that particular afternoon. There was nothing sectarian in the make-up of the marchers. They included people from various creeds, classes and political outlooks. The demands for full civil rights and increased equality were the unifying element for all participants.
We half-dozen organisers took a last minute decision to switch the route from Distillery Brae and Spencer Road to Duke Street, which was not originally intended. The police must have assumed that we would take “the Brae” for when our new route became obvious to them as we moved off; there was a hasty change in police strategy also. The riot squads, mobilised for a peaceful march, jumped into tenders and drove off, yelling, “Block off the mouth of Duke Street”, which they did at its junction with Craigavon Bridge. By the time the Civil Rights’ banner reached those lines of heavily-armed police, the march had grown to around one thousand strong.
The ‘Fifty Days Revolution’, which would end with the Six Counties’ biggest-ever programme of reform had begun. In as orderly a fashion as possible we had moved slowly, while keeping up our spirits, and strengthening our individual and collective resolve by singing “We Shall Overcome”. We were frighteningly conscious that immediately behind us the police on foot and their large water cannon moved menacingly forward at the tail-end of the march. Essentially, Duke Street became like a long tunnel, with both ends blocked, and in between the marchers were trapped, and at the mercy, or otherwise, of a one-party police state. In more ways than one, for the common people, there was no going back!
Seconds after drawing up against the police lines there was brief scuffling, during which Gerry Fitt MP, suffered a head wound from a baton. He was instantly pulled under police barriers, whisked away, first, strangely, to Victoria Barracks, and after questioning, and verbal abuse, to hospital. There he was X-Rayed by a twin sister of this writer, who, like our parents, was also on the march.
Some of the other politicians were struck, but none as seriously as the first selected target. These police actions were so swift that the majority of the crowd were unaware of what was happening at the front lines. Such had lasted only a brief few seconds. NICRA leaders were now aware that neither Irish nor British politicians could be any guarantee of protection. The lines of paramilitary police in front, as he had indicated previously to this writer, were commanded by ‘Ross the Boss’ -none other than D.I. McGimpsey himself.
On this historic occasion he carried his stout, particularly sharp-edged, black-thorn stick, not the one used for ceremonials. His attitude to peaceful protest was captured that day for posterity as he used this walking instrument for other purposes, becoming so energetic that his peaked-cap was dislodged in the exercise. Unwittingly, he was now a prime representation of ‘Ulster’ policing for a previously unenlightened international viewing audience. His delivery, to an unappreciative attendance, during that début performance, on a world stage, served the civil rights’ cause magnificently. Even those holding up, pointing to and waving their press cards were not spared his personal and brutal attention.
Civil rights leaders tried to restore calm before that main police assault. The historian, Fred Heatley and the Labour leader Erskine Holmes were seized by police and placed under armed guard in a tender. Attempts to break through police lines proved impossible. Marchers began to chant “Seig Heil” and for a half an hour the situation remained static. Police took advantage of hurried attempts to organise a panel of speakers, and get a public meeting under way, by forming yet another barricade at the rear of the parade. The crowd became more tightly packed between the lines of black uniforms, tenders and water cannon. After the last speaker addressed the gathering all hell broke loose.
Police clashed with marchers brutally and bloodily as people tried frantically to escape. There was, as the police had planned, no line of retreat, and so, symbolically, we could only but move forward.
The following reports and comments are taken from “The Derry Journal” of October 8, 1968. These reveal just some of the details of what happened at that historic march:
“As police attempted to drive the marchers back the injured were removed from the front of the conflict. Young men with blood streaming from head wounds were led away by onlookers and taken into nearby shops for attention before removal to hospital. Women caught up in the crowd screamed as they tried to get away and Mr. Mc Ateer later said that he saw a woman being struck in the mouth with a baton.
“The police water cannon were then brought into action and it drove through the crowd with both jets spraying at full pressure. It was followed into the crowd by a large number of steel-helmeted police with batons swinging. The police charged from both ends of the street as the marchers broke up in a bid to find a way through the barricades.
“The water cannon swept both sides of the street and at one stage on its way back elevated its line of fire to direct a jet through an open window on the first floor of a house where a television cameraman was filming. It then continued over Craigavon Bridge, with its jets hosing both footpaths. Hundreds of afternoon shoppers, many of them women and some accompanied by young children were caught in the deluge as the water carrier travelled to the Derry side of the bridge and continued round the roundabout at the foot of Carlisle Road, more than a quarter of a mile from the scene of the trouble.
“Meanwhile the bitter clash continued at Duke Street, as a result of which about thirty people were treated in hospital for head wounds, before the marchers were finally dispersed”.
Elsewhere, on page 8, one reads:
“None of the British MPs were hurt and after paying a visit to Altnagelvin Hospital, where they watched the injured being brought in, one of them, Mr. Kerr, said he was shocked by what he had seen. He said he would not care to comment further until he had made a full report to Mr. Callaghan.
“Mrs. Kerr said she dashed into a café when the violence started and while there she saw two young girls being brought in. They had been drenched and were in a very distressed condition, The police were grinning and appeared to be enjoying their work,” she said.
One could finally conclude that on October 5, 1968, by courtesy of the RUC and an inflexible short-sighted Minister of Home Affairs, the Civil Rights Association was transformed from being a mere pressure group into a mass movement for reform. This happened almost immediately. At the turn of a switch millions heard of a place called “Northern Ireland” and learned a lot from actually seeing its method of policing in their very living rooms. They may have forgotten the name of that street where it all happened, but not the name of that Irish city. Thereafter, when Derry cried out for reform, the whole world was listening. Even Westminster could no longer afford to conveniently ignore what had been happening in this one-party state, which it had established by imposing partition, forty-eight years previously.
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Dr. Conn and Mrs. Patricia McCluskey of Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, were founders of the Campaign for Social Justice in N. Ireland. After extensive lobbying, in Tyrone and other counties, and despite several disappointments it was launched at a press conference in the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast on 14 January 1964. It undoubtedly was the fore-runner of the N. Ireland Civil Rights Association. Nicra was established. three years later, in January 1967. Mrs. McCluskey (nee McShane), prior to the establishment of CSJ was one of sixty-seven people, mainly women, who founded the Homeless Citizens’ League. After unsuccessful representations to the Urban Council their first marches in Dungannon took place in June 1963. The League was then led by a youthful Mrs. Angela McCrystal.
The League and Campaign’s activities are recorded in Up Off Their Knees. Written by Conn McCluskey, it was published in 1989.
Click on the poster to see a larger version of it….
This poster was printed as part of the mobilisation for Derry’s first-ever Civil Rights demo on Oct. 5th 1968. Some years later its designer, Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, pointed out that such was the haste to obtain it off the presses that it was not properly inspected, and admitted it was only after many months he discovered that the word “Meeting” had been misspelt. He revealed that the colours he choose were quite deliberate. Black, symbolic of the on-going struggles against racism in America, South Africa and elsewhere. Red and blue on a white background were incorporated in a bid to widen and deeper what few links that then existed with working-class unionist families, who also suffered poor housing conditions across the city.
Ó Dochartaigh was secretary to of the Derry Housing Action Committee [D.H.A.C], and editor of its periodic newsletter, priced one-shilling. Following the successful Coalisland to Dungannon march the D.H.A.C called on the Nicra executive to organise a demo to highlight diverse social issues, particularly the dire shortage of houses and the need for boundary extension. It played a pivotal role in raising public awareness, not least through its newsletter REALITY, by frequently disrupting Corporation meetings at the Guildhall, court appearances and two members being incarcerated, pickets, street protests and other actions which attracted widespread media attention.
Women played a prominent part in its creation and development. The most outstanding of these was the late Mrs. Bridget Bond. Both she and her husband Johnny were key activists since the D.H.A.C’s inception. Mrs. Bond later unveiled the Bloody Sunday Monument dedicated to the 13 people shot dead during the civil rights march on January 30, 1972. Also remembered is Johnny Johnson who died of his injuries, soon afterwards. 17 civilians were reported wounded by the 1st Paratroops Regiment which opened fire on the demonstration after entering the Bogside.
This “banning order” was delivered by the RUC to those named on the instructions of the Stormont Minister for Home Affairs who viewed these four men as being the prime organisers of Derry’s first official civil rights march. The late Sean (John) Gallagher was the chief marshall on the day. The three others named were taken from their homes early on Oct. 6th and charged at a special court held at the main RUC base, Victoria Barracks on Strand Road. The original document was recently donated to the Museum of Free Derry by Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, a co-founder of Nicra, whose name appears in English:
PUBLIC ORDER ACT (NORTHERN IRELAND) 1951
WHEREAS I, The Right Honourable WILLIAM CRAIG, Minister of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland, am of opinion that the holding, on Saturday, 5th October, 1968, of any public processions or meetings in certain parts of the County Borough of Londonderry may give rise to serious public disorders:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, the Right Honourable WILLIAM CRAIG,
Minister of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland, in exercise of the powers conferred upon me by Section 2(2) of the Public Order Act (Northern Ireland) 1951, do hereby order that the holding, on Saturday, 5th October, 1968, of all public processions or meetings in any public highway, road, street or public place in that part of the County Borough of Londonderry situated within and on the Walls, and in the Waterside Ward of the said County Borough, be prohibited.
(Sgd.) Wm. Craig.
MINISTER OF HOME AFFAIRS
FOR NORTHERN IRELND
3rd. October, 1968
Eamonn Joseph McCANN, 10 Gartan Square, Londonderry
Thomas Eamonn MELAUGH, 92 Circular Road, Londonderry
John GALLAGHER, 28 Nassau Street, Londonderry
George Finbar O’DOHERTY, 8 Ravenswood Park, Prehen, Londonderry
Rebecca was a Republican in the truest sense of the word and she was fiercely proud of her beliefs. Her republicanism was that of Wolfe Tone and she spent her life arguing, campaigning and working whatever way she could for the unity of Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. Rebecca hated bigotry and sectarianism and in order to rid Northern Ireland of this evil she devoted much of her life to the civil rights movement. She was a prominent figure on all the marches and for many years was a member of the Executive of NICRA.
Rebecca and her husband Big Frank worked tirelessly on behalf of their class. They carried the socialist message that working class strength lay in working class unity to the streets of Ardoyne and North Belfast. In the early seventies as sectarianism, communal strife, and the activities of bigots gathered momentum, they became more determined to get the socialist message across. They held positively and loudly to non-sectarian principles and convictions when lesser people would have chosen silence.
The only fear they knew was the fear of failing and this they did not do. That there is a continued voice of opposition to narrow mindedness and bigotry in this city of Belfast and that the voice is daily growing louder is a tribute to the people like Frank and Rebecca. People who had the vision to see the evil that was developing in our midst and the courage to stand against it.
To her friends and comrades Rebecca was gentle and quiet spoken, yet fiercely determined in her views. She did not require glasnost to express her opinions. Her commonsense and ability to relate politics to the lives of people enriched many a political debate.
Rebecca was also a deeply spiritual woman. She loved music and shared with Frank an appreciation of the Irish language and its literature. Her spirituality was an essential part of her humanity which she shared with us all.
Goodbye Rebecca. We will miss you but are enriched by having known you.
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Cathy Harkin died on 22nd July, 1985
On her headstone are the words:
“It was as brief as it was difficult.”
Though the words were placed by Cathy in memory of her greatly loved mother, no words could better sum up Cathy’s own life.
Cathy worked for many years in a shirt factory in Derry, a hard life, badly paid, but not uncommon in Derry. She married and had one son, Terence, and a daughter, Molly, who was an infant cot death.
Cathy was involved in the Derry Labour Party for many years and was in the Derry Housing Action Committee which was linked to the start of the Civil Rights Movement.
But it is probably for her part in Women’s Aid that she will be most remembered. Any woman who came to her for help was sure not only to find a sympathetic helper, but a friend. She was available at any time, day or night, for any woman in trouble. She used to say that she would get arthritis of the shoulder from the many tears that were cried on her. However, she never complained.
She worried greatly about many people, from the young prostitutes that were being cruelly treated in her home town of Derry, to those people who were crushed by poverty, trying to bring up children on not enough money. You could always be sure that Cathy would put the interests of anyone else before herself.
When she got the opportunity to avail of formal education, she chose to study history, graduating with a degree in the late 1070s. Cathy was always up to date on Welfare Law and appeared often with claimants at Tribunals, getting whatever was possible for the applicants though often despairing at what was available.
Cathy was imaginative. You could never be bored in her company. Her mind could see angles to every situation that would not normally strike you. She was fun to be with and, after talking to her, you went away refreshed and uplifted.
Cathy was a feminist, a socialist and a trade unionist but mostly Cathy was a beautiful Derry woman. She will be greatly missed.
“It was as brief as it was difficult”.
Written by Avila Kilmurray. Source: City of Change by Dermot Kelly, 2007. Yes! Publication, 10-12 Bishop St., Derry.