IT WAS with profound shock and sadness that the people of the Bogside district, and much further afield, learnt of the death of Mr. Vincent Coyle.
He was a self-professed socialist, who became one of the best known and extremely popular figures of the civil rights movement from the mid-1960s’, including and beyond the tragic events of Bloody Sunday. Following the unwarranted massacre of peaceful civil rights marchers, in January 1972, his home became an international newsroom and local information centre.
‘Vinny’, as he was popularly known, was born in January 1929. He was one of nine children born to John and Angela Coyle of Ann Street, off Rossville Street. He believed in Derry like he believed in God. He provided tools and assisted in building the first barricade outside his own home in Rossville Street, in 1968. Although to many people he was just an ordinary docker, as was his father before him, to many more he was a symbol of determination and hope for the city.
Vinny will best be remembered as a highly effective civil rights’ steward at many historic marches and mass meetings. His six-foot muscular frame maintained more law and order during the trial of fellow civil rights leaders at the city’s Magistrates’ Court than three lorry loads of RUC. None of us could ever forget how, with outstretched hands and words of wisdom, he calmed that, and many more volatile situations, throughout many stormy years. Often, alongside him stood two of his brothers, the late Joe and Johnny Coyle. Joe tragically lost his life with two other adults and two children in an explosion in the early 1970s’ at the home of a republican comrade who resided in the Creggan district of the city.
From the days of the Housing Action Committee, and from being a rank and file member of the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, Vincent worked his way through the ranks of the civil rights movement to become one of its most well known figures and spokespersons. He was on first name terms with local journalists, but also leading media personalities across the globe.
Up to, and including the October 5th demonstration, where he was in the front line, he was just ‘one of the boys’. However, he was so impressed by the work and courage of the marshals on that fateful day, who were led by the late republican veteran Sean Gallagher, of Rosemount, that he joined the select body and soon became a deputy chief steward.
His strength and intelligence got him the job of bodyguard to Ivan Cooper and John Hume, at various venues and events, which were deemed to be unsafe. His two brothers, Johnny and Joe, were Hume’s election proposers, and Vinny was a seconder as well on the electoral documentation.
His undoubted competency got him the job of Chief Marshal by popular acclaim within the seven hundred strong stewards’ organization. He gave up many days of work ‘for the cause’, as he put it, to carry out such onerous duties.
When the British Labour leader, Jim Callaghan, came to Derry in August 1969, anxious civil rights’ leaders assembled near Free Derry Corner, which was the most suitable meeting point. Vinny arrived at the scene, realized the problem, and with no instruction necessary, set off to find the elusive politician from London. He duly located his target, and soon reappeared, proud as punch, declaring to Callaghan, “These are my friends, Mr. John Hume and Mr. Ivan Copper”, and so on.
Callaghan later enquired, “Who is that marvellous man with the bushy moustache and large brimmed hat. He was like Moses himself, at the parting of the Red Sea. We were at the edge of the massive welcoming crowd, feeling somewhat lost and abandoned. He became our saviour. Everybody knew him. The multitude parted with a mere wave of his hand until we got to our promised location”.
Vinny told journalists once at the City Hotel, which was our busy headquarters on those dramatic days, “Through my example I hope to communicate to people my tolerance of everyone. If they see me taking it they will learn to be obedient at the demonstrations. My aims are for all the people of Derry to get what they are entitled to”.
To him Derry was the most wonderful place on God’s green earth. He was, like many others of his generation, forced to become a wanderer because of bad times in his youth. He worked at a multitude of jobs, including chef, ice cream salesman, lathe-turner, gas worker and builder’s labourer.
He summed up his involvement and socialist outlook as follows: “We are in this for our children and for everybody’s children, that they can obtain civil rights to grow up with all the doors of opportunity wide open for them”.
Vinny was alongside the homeless and unemployed long before October 5th 1968. He and his stewards came to our rescue immediately following the vicious attacks on Burntollet Bridge, and put his arm around many of the families of those who lost their lives, before and after Bloody Sunday. We have all lost an extraordinary man.
Like many who will mourn his passing, I and other civil rights’ leaders feel proud to have known Vinny Coyle, not only as a political ally, but as a sincere and true friend. This working-class hero deserves to be remembered. He did more than most to lead and unlock our people from many of the links that make up the chain of state-sponsored discrimination and second-class citizenship.
Vinny sadly has left us, but even from beyond the grave his undoubted courage and practical examples in struggle will continue to inspire us to move, forever, forward, be we Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter.