Springtown Camp and Civil Rights’ women

Originally Published Derry Journal, Friday, 6th June 2008.

 
Local author and historian Fionnbarra Ó’Dochartaigh, a co-founder of NICRA in 1967, in this third exclusive article for the “Journal” traces the roots of early public agitations which led to the dramatic events on Derry’s Duke Street on October 5th 1968.  Almost overnight the civil rights lobby-group was transformed into a mass movement. This writer currently sits on the executive of the 40th Anniversary Commemoration Committee.  

 
‘The land of the free and the home of the brave!’

“I have never seen anything as bad as this except near Johnannesburg” –
          

Sheelagh Murnaghan M.P – 13th June 1964.

World War II had ended. The American troops had locked the gates of Springtown Camp for the last time. It had been home to countless combatants during that global conflict. In a final ceremonial gesture they joyfully marched off towards Strand Road and the river, bands playing and flags flying. They were finally being released from grave inner fears and heavy burdens on their families and wider communities. At long last they would be homeward bound now that victory over Fascism had been won at a very high cost in human lives, both military and civilian. Several local women, hoping for a brighter future, would soon follow them to become their wives and raise their offspring in what was claimed to be “The land of the free and the home of the brave”.

After the Camp was vacated all was far from quiet on the homeless front in this Maiden City on the Foyle. Almost immediately a few brave free-thinkers with the best of intentions put their plan into action. The wire fences surrounding the former military base were cut in what became a successful bid to secure desperately-needed accommodation. The base appeared to many less fortunate folk as a highly-desirable location. Families began to select “their” huts. These were initially intended only as temporary dwellings, during wartime. Tirelessly, for two decades these civilian residents engaged in what at times must have seemed an unrewarding struggle against the power-brokers, in the Guildhall and Stormont. Their collective demands were totally justified and truly modest- proper brick-built and insulated homes.

Quite early on the Unionist-dominated Corporation, with little alternative other than carry out mass evictions, softened their hostility somewhat. Evictions on such a scale would undoubtedly have resulted in major social unrest, so for the Corporation there was little room for manoeuvre. Previously the ‘powers-that-be’ referred to the new inhabitants as “squatters”. The change in attitude and practice meant that the residents could no longer be ignored or openly treated with contempt. A new status was conferred whereby all became legal tenants. The physical manifestation of such took the form of issuing rent books, thereafter, to bear the official recording of five shillings a week, per hut.

The families’ tenancy agreement stated that it was for temporary occupancy for around six months or so. That was more than a hint that evictions had not been totally ruled out, and suggested a blunt, if not menacing message, “We your masters are still in control”.  The word “temporary” used by local officialdom certainly did not conform to the meaning described in any English language dictionary.  But then other very precisely explained words that supposedly created social, economic and political duties and obligations on us all, had long ago lost any real value or meaning in this deliberately ignored corner of the Empire [Long-standing ‘Convention’ -N. Ireland affairs must not to  be discussed at Westminster].

The Struggle

By walking or driving past the Camp one might have assumed that there were a mere score or so huts. In fact, at its peak there were 304 huts – about 90% corrugated tin and 10% wooden. At first each hut could best be described as a large empty space with neither toilet nor heating facilities. After much pressure the Corporation carried out a renovation scheme turning most into 3-bedrooms, a small living room which had a range, a minute scullery with a “jaw box” (sink) and a tiny toilet. As there were no back doors in any of the huts, such created very obvious dangers if fire was to catch hold at any time. Such did in fact occur in several huts, with the wooden structures burning like a bale of hay in a matter of mere minutes.

These dangers increased because conditions were so severe in the winter some families were forced to install coke-burning stoves in the largest bedroom. These required frequent trips to the Gas Yard on Lecky Road, a considerable distance away. The stoves were often referred to as ‘life-savers’ which was no exaggeration in such harsh conditions.

The 304 huts were occupied by close to 400 families. The reason for such overcrowding was due to the fact that young couples, after being married had nowhere else to go. It was considered “normal” practice for their parents to give them a room, if such a “luxury” could be offered. The sons or daughters were now registered as “sub-tenants” and so it was not uncommon to find as many as 16 persons per hut.  Such created problems when it came to maintaining personal hygiene and washing garments, not to mention answering the call of nature.

As for Corporation employees there were three, one “rent-man” and two caretakers. Their office has been described as a “half-hut” located at the gate at the top of the Camp.

An early mini-campaign secured a bus link provided by the Ulster Transport Authority into the city-centre. This was of great importance especially for children attending local schools. While at home they could at least enjoy the scenery and ample space surrounding the Camp, which alas is often denied children of to-day, who live in high-rise flats in many towns and cities. In addition, when the fields were wet and soggy, which in our climate was frequent, there was always the hard surface that made up “the Square” where football, hopscotch or other games could be played. It was also the assembly point when the occasional protest meeting was deemed necessary. Audible was the sound of the “Buncrana Train” as it rattled along the rails. Such was a daily reminder that not too far away was what passed for our local Riviera with its beaches, amusements and other attractions across the Border, for those lucky enough to afford such excursions.

In time a large concrete bridge was built over the railway lines linking the Camp to Buncrana Road. Almost every development, small or large associated with the name Springtown Camp; kept it constantly in the news over the years since the ending of WW II.  Official neglect was a scandal that was not ignored by some local journalists. They reported the fact that little or no repairs were carried out and so these totally inadequate dwellings fell into a state of disrepair. It was noted that rain penetrated as the tin rusted and holes began to appear near ground level. This combination made for intense cold and damp to a life-threatening degree. Certainly poor health could almost be guaranteed for all occupants, especially the elderly, newly borns and young children.

 

Early Agitation

 As the 1950s drew to a close there were still around 200 families living in 161 huts. As usual the Corporation was building very few houses so this fact was also of concern to many other homeless couples and families right across the city. Ironically, the Corporation continued to call ‘housing meetings’, undoubtedly a sham and a ploy to give the false impression that providing homes was indeed one of its social priorities.

A detailed study of this era reveals that while non-Unionist councillors spoke out when an opportunity arose, they always came up against a brick wall. The ‘old guard’ was not for turning even when in November 1959 Councillor Seamus Deeney, addressing his remarks to Alderman Glover, asked the question, “How in God’s name could a young married couple with one child be given a higher degree of priority than a family of 8 living in Springtown Camp for the past 12 years?” The question was met by silence. The Alderman again offered no response when Deeney declared, “These people have a damned good case for the Human Rights Committee in Strasbourg”.

On that occasion women were present in the Council Chamber of the Guildhall. Their leader politely requested permission to speak. The immediate response of the chairman was to declare the meeting abandoned after ensuring that the R.U.C had arrived and were on hand to remove these mothers from the public gallery.

That 20-strong protest was led by Mrs. Sadie Campbell, Mrs. Kathleen Porter and Mrs. J. Mc Brearty. Later the “Journal” reported “Round one for the women of Springtown Camp”. They were back again to a reconvened meeting, undeterred by the probable return of the police. This time they more militantly demanded their rights of assembly and to freedom of speech, in a supposedly democratic forum.

 

Civil Rights’ women
 
On Saturday May 31st 2008, Sadie Campbell, believed to be the last surviving leader of those earlier protests was conferred with a special presentation. She was introduced to an audience at the East Tyrone College in Dungannon by a younger former resident, Willie Deery. Willie is undoubtedly an authority on the Camp’s history. He has contributed greatly to the residents’ website, www.springtowncamp.com <http://www.springtowncamp.com/>  The site is a major reference point for this article.

He recalled the events of 1959 and how the determined, undeterred mothers were not going to be fobbed off by anyone until they had their say. The powers-that-be relented and so the women of the Camp actually became the first women in over 20 years to speak at a Derry Corporation meeting. Their spokesperson said, “We have lost some of our children due to the terrible conditions we have to live in. We appeal to the mothers of Derry to support us in our fight, and we ask this Corporation to remove this disgrace from our city.”

As a direct result of the mounting protests more families were re-housed out of the Camp, but even more emigrated. However, as late as 1964 there were still over 150 families living there in conditions that were much worse than previously. Promises were made and broken on all too many an occasion. Amid mounting despair the huts were literally crumbling around them. 

Their situation could not be divorced from the political realities of those times when gerrymandering in Derry was rife and at its worst. In the Camp there were approximately 700 nationalist voters. The problem for key Unionists centred on where to house them without jeopardising their electoral superiority. They even attempted to wash their hands of housing any of these families by stating that they were just outside the city boundary, [which they repeatedly refused to extend], thus passing the buck to the Rural Council.

 

Last front door closed

Eventually, in October 1967, one year before Derry’s first official civil rights march, the last residents, Charlie and Sarah Lynch closed the front door of their hut. Thus ended the tragic and appalling saga of Springtown Camp.

 In Dungannon memories flooded back for Sadie Campbell and other residents as she was presented with a glass vase and flowers. On the vase was the ‘Oak leaf’ civil rights badge. It was designed in 1968 by a former art teacher, Sheila McClean. Also engraved under that circular logo was “Sadie Campbell – Springtown Camp, 1946-1967”. It was specially commissioned from Derry Crystal by former civil rights leaders.

Those surrounding Mrs. Campbell during the memorable and moving presentation ceremony included several female champions of civil rights; the renowned journalist and author Susan McKay, trade union leader Inez McCormack, well-known playwright Anne Devlin [daughter of the late Paddy Devlin MP], and the human rights lawyer Padraigin Drinan.

Sadie’s short acceptance speech was recorded by two cameras, both appropriately operated by experienced female film-makers. This commemorative event in Dungannon focused on the heroic role played by women in the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and beyond. Billed as an ‘inclusive discussion’, men were not excluded.

By Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, rights.civil@googlemail.com

Women were backbone of the civil rights movement

“I never thought I would have the courage to walk into the mayor’s parlour and ask a question,” Sadie Campbell said. “And when I did, the mayor said: ‘Get the police.’” Sadie was speaking on Saturday after she was presented with an award to celebrate her contribution to” the achievement of civil rights.

Sadie’s activism predated the setting up of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (Nicra). Her encounter with the unionist mayor of Derry was in 1959, when she led a delegation of women from the huts at Springtown camp in Derry to the Guildhall, to protest about living conditions. There had been an outbreak of fire and children had been injured.

The camp consisted of 300 Nissen huts left behind in 1946 by the US navy. At first those who moved into them had been delighted as it meant escaping the grossly overcrowded tenements of the Bogside. However, by the

mid-1950s 400 Catholic families were living in the camp and some of the huts had nearly 20 people living in them, entire families lodging in one small partitioned room.

They paid rent to the corporation to live in this slum. The mayor’s rejection spurred Sadie and the others on and the protests continued. However, it was 1967 by the time the last of the residents were rehoused and Springtown camp closed. The huts were sold to farmers, who lodged pigs and cows in them.

The meeting, in Dungannon, was about women’s role in the civil rights movement. Writer Anne Devlin, a founding member of People’s Democracy, read a powerful and haunting account of a young woman’s feelings as she set off on the 1969 march from Belfast to Derry that would go down in history as the Burntollet march because of the ambush there.

“We were walking through time,” she said. She remembered fear too.

Former Ictu president Inez McCormack, who, as a trade union leader, has represented some of the lowest-paid women in northern society, spoke about the importance of continuing to struggle for human rights even after you’d achieved comfort for yourself.

This is something the DUP and Sinn Fein would do well to remember.

One of the most famous demands of the civil rights movement was “one man one vote”. Feminism hadn’t impinged deeply. Inez described going with her then boyfriend, now husband, Vinnie, to a People’s Democracy meeting after Burntollet.

“When we went into the house Vinnie was led in to the room where the meeting was to be held, while I was led to the kitchen with the other women,” she said.

“The only woman at the meeting was Bernadette.”

Bernadette Devlin was a blazing star, young, fiercely eloquent and fearlessly continuing to speak out on platforms across the morally conservative north while heavily pregnant and

unabashedly unmarried.

Anne spoke about how she had seen her father, trade unionist and SDLP founder Paddy Devlin, as the political figure in her household.

“I didn’t pay enough attention to the role my mother played,” she said.

Sometimes, though, women did take the lead in public while their husbands looked after the children. Rebecca and Frank McGlade were both activists, but it was Rebecca who was on the executive of Nicra. Their daughter, Dympna, read some of her mother’s memories, recorded before she died in 1989.

“Women were the backbone of the civil rights struggle,” she said. She described how women would open their homes to marchers, fed them, lodged them, and “treated them like royalty”.

She recalled Hilary Boyle, a “little old lady” and author from Dublin, who always wore a hat. When one march was blocked she climbed hedges to get to the forbidden route, where she waved her umbrella defiantly at the RUC.

Margaret McCluskey, whose parents Patricia and Con played a crucial role in establishing and publicising the facts about discrimination against Catholics, said the Catholic Church had discouraged protest.

“The attitude was, you stayed in the place God put you in,” she said.

Inez noted that many of the slum houses in Derry were owned by the Catholic Church.

Mary Rafferty talked about the inspiring woman who taught her geography at school in Dungannon and encouraged her to go out and fight for her rights. This woman had been accused of being a ‘red’ and had almost lost her job over it. Linda Edgerton, who was a red and proud of it, recalled rushing home from protests to make the tea. Edwina Stewart summed up the necessary qualities: “You had to be well able,” she said.

“Those Were the Days My Friend” – The Role of Women in Civil Rights – Event Report

They and others risked their lives and worked tirelessly, demanding civil rights for all- but history has often overlooked them. They were the women of the civil rights movement in NI. Bernadette Devlin was a powerful exception but most other women appeared to be in the background.

On Saturday 31 May 2008, in South West College in Dungannon, the Civil Rights Commemoration Committee honoured the courageous role of women in civil rights. In a fascinating event, journalist Susan McKay chaired an open discussion on the theme of “Those Were the Days My Friend”.

Playwright Anne Devlin and member of People’s Democracy. Anne red a thought provoking and moving piece that she had specially written for the event. The forthright trade unionist and campaigner for women, Inez McCormack, told the audience how the infamous Burntollet ambush inspired her to campaign against injustice.

As Inez said recently in a newspaper article “At that time I was a young Protestant girl who didn’t understand that there were grave issues of inequality, injustice and division in our society. It wasn’t that Protestants didn’t suffer deprivation, but there was systematic discrimination against Catholics. That march changed my life.”

The most compelling part of the day was the wonderful testimonials told by women in the audience, they gave their personal stories, talked of the role of their friends or families in civil rights. Edwina Stewart spoke of the role of Betty Sinclair in NICRA, Margaret McCluskey highlighted the passionate role of her parents Con and Patricia McCluskey in producing the facts on discrimination in NI, through the Campaign for Social Justice, Dympna McGlade read out a piece written by her late mother Rebecca, which stressed that “Women were the backbone of the civil rights struggle.”

The morning session ended in an emotional presentation to Sadie Campbell from the Springtown Camp in Derry. Over 50 years ago, Sadie took it upon herself to campaign for better housing facilities for her family and neighbours in Springtown Camp. Sadie recognised the injustice that existed and was not prepared to accept it. She stood up and opposed it and fought for justice, not just for herself but for the many families living in the area at that time.

The day was a unique opportunity to hear the voices of ordinary women who did extraordinary things in the civil rights movement. It was welcome that the whole day was recorded and will be available for a wider audience to hear.

 

Upcoming Event: Housing Conference – 21st June 2008

HOUSING RIGHTS FOR ALL

A Housing Conference Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Caledon Protest and looking at the major housing issues today in Ireland and internationally

Saturday 21 June 2008
Armagh City Hotel, Armagh City

Agenda

Austin Currie, Lord Ken Magennis,
Representative from Gildernew Family

Duncan Morrow , Chief Executive
Community Relations Council

Inez McCormack, Trade unionist

Fr Peter McVerry, Homeless campaigner

Professor Paddy Hillyard, Chair of Sociology QUB
Minister Margaret Ritchie, Department of Social Development

Tom Arnold, Chief Executive, Concern

Paddy McGuinness, Niall Mellon Township Trust

  • 3.15pm International Experience
  • 2.00pm Responding to Housing Need
  • 12.30pm Lunch
  • 11.30am The Housing Problem Today
  • 10.00am Historical Reflection on Caledon Protest
  • 9.30am Registration

 To register for the event please download the registration form:
housing-conference registration form

Upcoming Event: Women in the civil rights movement

“Those Were The Days My Friend”

A round-table discussion with audience to commemorate the courageous role of women in the civil rights movement then and now. The audience will be invited to give their personal stories or testimonials

11.00am -3.00pm
Saturday 31 May 2008

in East Tyrone College,
Circular Road, Dungannon,

Chair: Susan McKay

Speakers:

  • Bernadette McAliskey
  • Inez McCormack
  • Anne Devlin

For RSVP and further information contact: Tim Attwood 07802 279939 or E:civilrights1968@yahoo.co.uk

WOMEN IN CIVIL RIGHTS

When the civil rights struggle came, a meeting was called for people interested in social justice, were against repression and for the good of the community and my husband Frank and I were invited along. I was proposed and seconded for the Executive Committee of the Civil Rights Association and willingly joined it. I was on the Executive Committee from the beginning to the very end of the civil rights campaign and I was in every single march including the first one from Coalisland to Dungannon, the Bloody Sunday one and the last one in Newry. Frank became an ordinary member, as someone had to look after the children and our oldest son was mentally handicapped. But Frank still managed to do a colossal amount of civil rights work as well.

They were a great crowd of people who joined the civil rights struggle, from all walks of life and all ages, classes and creeds. Many of them had never taken part in a public demonstration before and I know never have since, but it did attract the very best type. There were students, musicians, trades people, business people, professors, unemployed, solicitors, farmers, factory workers, authors, housewives and many others I could go on forever. The first chairman was John D. Stewart who was a humanist and author and journalist by profession.

Many people who took part in the struggle suffered in public life. Some had to close their businesses because bigoted and prejudiced people refused to buy from them or hire their services. Lots of people lost their livelihoods and homes because bigots could not see that the civil rights struggle was completely non-sectarian.

There were also many women and girls involved, and family groups would come along and take part. One was a large family from the Cliftonville that used to come in their own mini bus. They even had their own banner that they made themselves.

There were many young women and girls involved, mostly students from different universities, who suffered much. In the march to Burntollet they were ambushed, beaten all along the way and had to flee across fields and rivers etc. I am proud to say that one of these young women was my daughter Brid.

Women were the backbone of the civil rights struggle. At the time of the Newry march all the houses in the town were open and the women made welcome all those who attended the march. The Newry women just handed their homes over and people came from all over Ireland for the rally. There were as many as twenty or thirty people in each house made welcome, fed and treated like royalty. It was the same in lots of towns and villages, the women were always to the fore with the food and shelter for all who needed it. They attended the rallies as well, and many a one both young and old was battened and stoned. It never deterred them and they always supported the rallies in their thousands, always brave and practical and always ready for any emergency.

One little old lady from Dublin, an authoress called Hilary Boyle, was on all the marches. She was very tiny and dressed in a very distinguished fashion and always wore a hat. The crown forces were preventing the people from crossing over a certain area on a particular march. But Hilary was not to be beaten, she hitched up her skirt and climbed over all the hedges in a row of houses and through a little field to the main road. There she stood and waved her umbrella at the RUC. The umbrella was bigger than she was! It was really funny and there was not one thing they could do about it. That was one battle certainly won in a non-violent manner.

There was also another family of girls who supported civil rights. They were from Armagh and included the mother and her five daughters. They always wore dark clothes, heavy shoes and carried haversacks full of sandwiches and flasks of tea because they said ‘you never know what sort of situation you could end up in’ and they were quite right because so many funny and surreal things did happen on the rallies. They were nearly all nurses and one was a schoolteacher. When people were sick, injured or felt faint, they were always to the fore with their first aid kits. They were very well known and always at hand to help.

Many of these great women have taken their places in society in the different professions and are doing brilliantly as doctors, dentists, solicitors etc. Some have emigrated and are doing well in different countries around the world. They were a really great crowd of people with the best hearts and intentions in the world. It was truly a better life for all campaign and those involved were the salt of the earth and I am proud to have played my part in it.

Rebecca McGlade June 1989