Memories of the October 5th 1968 Civil Rights March. The day The Troubles began…

 

I’ve never spoke on a public platform before, but feel moved to break my silence and contribute to the 50th anniversary civil rights Program.

I always remind my twin brother, Fionnbarra, that I am his senior, being born one hour before him at 134 Bogside, which was then known as a single street which ran from the Slaughter House to the junction of Lecky Road & Rossville Street.

My mother Mary Ellen, born 1908. hailed from Ballee, Ballymagory near Strabane. She married Harry, born in 1899, in what was then Fredrick Street. Neither are mentioned in the history books but played no small part in the development of the early campaigns for human decency and basic civil liberties.

My mother died in 2007, aged 99. Over many years, she was publicly referred to as “Mother of Civil Rights”, notably in the local media and by ’68 veterans such as Ivan Cooper, who although in poor health, plans to honours us all and our on-going struggles by being presence here to-night.

Our parents had twelve children, three died quite young. We had nine siblings until our oldest brother Pat Leo passed away in London, in August 2015. I mention him as he and a friend, Frankie Meenan from Rosssville Street, were both interned without charge or trial in 1957.

Both were stopped on their way home and detained by B’ Specials as they conversed in the ancient Gaelic language. Leo wasn’t released until 1960. As a family we took a stand exposing such injustices as the Special Powers Act and other abuses of the old Stormont regime – Regrettably it has returned – Belatedly folk describe it as “Internment by Remand”.

From the early 196Os our parents actively co-operated with many people who also desired fundamental social change. These included Dr. Conn McCluskey and his wife Patricia. Both based in Dungannon were prominent in exposing discrimination, mainly regarding housing.

That brave couple spear-headed the Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland. The CSJ was the forerunner of the Civil Rights Association, of which my twin brother was a co-founder in Belfast in 1967. Our many house-guests included numerous Irish-Americans, Betty Sinclair, Secretary, Belfast Trades Council, as well as Roddy and Dr. Nora O’Brien, a son and daughter of the 1916 executed leader, Commandant General James Connolly, to name but a few.

Young and old often came to meet our father, a veteran of the 1916-23 struggle. He had strong links in his youth with the GAA. In his early teens he was engaged by close relatives in the firm known as “Doherty Meats”.

He became a master butcher and trained generations of apprentices, one of whom was a lad called Martin McGuinness. Harry was described as a trail-blazer for higher wages because he established the Butchers’ & Allied Workers’ Union which eventually merged with the much bigger Transport & General Workers.

He was elected unto the Six Counties’ section of the Irish Trades Union Congress. Alongside local Alderman James Hegarty, both spoke out strongly for civil rights. Unfortunately they were often highly frustrated by mild-mannered sectarianism, even though all concerned referred to each other as “Brothers” and “Sisters”.

NOW I’LL SPEAK OF MY MEMORIES OF THE OCTOBER 5TH MARCH 1968

The day started early mid morning, with the arrival of Gerry Fitt and his delegation from Belfast to our home in Prehen. My mother and I had prepared tea and sandwiches for them.

Around 3pm Mr. Fitt, MP for West Belfast went off to meet 3 English Westminster Labour MPs. The 4 had been invited with others to take up positions at the head of what was expected to be a totally peaceful demonstration. My parents, brother Fionnbarra and myself also headed for Duke Street. We were pretty much at the rear of the march close to the old waterside railway station, where only a handful of protestors turned up to wave Union Jacks.

We waited and waited but the march did not start at the designated time, 3.30pm.

The Civil Rights march was banned by William Craig about 36 hours before. Out of curiosity, I decided to walk up Duke Street towards the front of the march, to see what the delay was.

I was astounded to see rows of RUC men in riot-gear about three deep, blocking the entrance to Craigavon Bridge. There was a loud debate going on between the Civil Rights leaders and the RUC, who refused to let the march proceed.

I stood for a few minutes as someone began to speak facing the crowd and appealing to the police. I then proceeded back to the end of the march, hoping to inform everyone what was happening.

I got no further than half way down Duke St, when the RUC literally ran amok and starting beating the marchers with their truncheons and drenching them with brownish forceful jets from water-cannon. . Pandemonium broke out, as everyone ran down that Street, which in those days was like a tunnel, with no lanes or side streets to escape to safety.

They were followed by the RUC, who hit out at everyone, with no regard to gender or age. I even witnessed a young mother wheeling a baby in a pram being assaulted. They, the RUC, were aiming at skulls and upper bodies.

As a final year Student Radiographer at the School of Radiography, in Altnagelvin Hospital at the time, I was deeply shocked at the brutality, especially having been trained to realise, the consequences of brain injury, I was absolutely appalled that this could be inflicted on ordinary civilians by our a so-called security force.

I too tried to run, but was unable to move out of fright. My legs just would not move.

My whole body froze in spite of the danger it was in. Someone grabbed me by the arm and yelled. “Run, Deirdre Run!” It was my twin brother, Fionnbarra.

He pulled me literally with him. and we ran down Duke St , with a RUC man chasing us. This cop got distracted and ran after someone else. People who knew us well pushed us into a cafe. Luckily at the back of the cafe there was an empty table. We sat down immediately, grabbing two large menu cards. Within seconds the same RUC man burst into the cafe and started looking around. The rest of the people in the cafe had no idea what was happening outside.

I made a point of looking straight into policeman’s face, He was quite young, early twenties, holding his blood-stained truncheon as if about to use it yet again. To this day I have never seen a face that showed so much viciousness and hatred. To our relief, he did not recognise us and he left the cafe.

We waited a while and then decided to go back into Duke Street.

The number of people injured was unbelievable.

It was then, I heard the siren of the first ambulance arriving via Spencer Road.

I said to Fionnbarra, that I was going to try and get on that ambulance. as I would be more useful helping at the Hospital than remaining in Duke St.

In those days, very few staff lived in the Waterside and I knew that Heather Connor, from Larne, was the one and only Radiographer on duty. By the time I got to the ambulance, which had already piled in as many injured as possible, it was beginning to move off.

I ran alongside, and shouted to the co-driver, that I was a radiographer and would be needed at the Hospital. He opened the door, using both hands, grabbed be by my arm and pulled me in beside him, remarking at the same time.” Get in Luv, It looks like its going to be a long bloody night for you!”

On arriving at the hospital, I headed to the X-ray room in A&E, where my colleague

asked, “What are you doing here ? I explained to her and she was visibly upset at what had just happened in Duke Street.

In those days. A&E consisted of one large treatment room divided by curtains. The waiting room was very small and had about seating for 10-12 patients.

After the arrival of a second ambulance the waiting room was practically filled with injured people with bleeding head wounds. As far as I can remember there were only 2 -3 doctors on duty and a few nurses.

Relatives started to arrive. Another ambulance arrives. By now there were people lying on the floor, with friends and relatives taking off coats and jumpers, and rolling them up to make cushions for their heads.

I had never seen anything like this. It was like a war zone.

We very soon got the first patients in for skull x-rays as all the head injuries were seen to first. My third patient was Gerry Fitt himself, He had a open head wound and was covered in blood. I hardly recognised him until I saw the name on the request form.

He was quite conscious and recognised me at once. I told him, I was going to x-ray him. My God he said, when you were feeding me tea and sandwiches this morning, I’m sure you would not have thought that you would end up x-raying me!

Another early patient was Martin Cowley, then a cub-reporter with The Derry Journal, which I was unaware of then. With a broad smile and hand-shake he introduced himself in the Guildhall at the 40th Anniversary of 5th October in 2008, when someone told him of my NHS work on October 5th.

We worked non-stop until all the head injuries were looked after.

Then came all the shoulder blades, rib cages and arm injuries.

Heather and I expected other staff to turn up to assist but no-one came. It later emerged that the RUC had closed Craigavon bridge completely until nearly mid-night. No one could get across.

I was very anxious about my parents and brother and every now and again would check the waiting room to see if they too had been injured. They very fortunately had not. My parents had retreated to Victoria Road and walked towards the safety of our home, then in Prehen.

At about just before midnight, a senior Radiographer had arrived. She had been trying to get to the hospital as soon as she heard the news but was unable to get across the bridge. She was surprised to see me and asked how I managed it. I told her I was on the march and had ‘jumped on the first ambulance’.

It was well after one o’clock that I was able to leave.

I was curious to know how many patients we had, so decided only to count the number of skull x-rays. We had each x-rayed about 44 skulls between us.

I arrived home totally exhausted and went straight to bed. I was awakened before 8am with loud banging on the front door. It was the RUC, to arrest my twin brother.

My mother dressed immediately but refused to let them take him straight away, ‘He is not leaving this house without a full breakfast!’ she told them. Also arrested at their respective dwellings were “the Two Eamonns” – Melaugh and McCann.

On Monday, I went to work. The main X-ray Dept was on the third floor and we students had our own room. The whole talk was about what happened on Saturday in Duke St. When they heard that I was at the march, they got stuck into me, referring to me, as no better than a hooligan and rioter.

The most vicious verbal attack came from a girl who was from Tipperary, telling me that there was nothing in Northern Ireland to complain about, as we were much better off than in the Republic. I held my ground with them and told them what the Civil Rights movement was all about.

Later, within earshot of my student colleagues, the Deputy Supt. Radiographer informed me that The Chief Radiologist and Head of the School of Radiography, (Retired Army Medical Corps Colonel Whyte – now deceased) wanted to see me in his office at 11am.

“He’ll sort you out” muttered one of my follow students.

On the contrary, it was the opposite. he had been told by the senior colleague who had arrived late on Saturday night, what I had done.

‘I saw the footage on TV’ he said. I recall his very welcome words: “It was ugly. I am very impressed that in that scenario you had the insight to think not only of your hospital colleagues but also of your fellow citizens. I very highly commend your action. Except, for jumping on to a moving vehicle, you could have put herself in danger. In any danger zone, you must always think of your own safety first”.

I came out of his office feeling and probably looking quite elated.

I could see that everyone was dying to know what he said to me. But besides my family, I told no-one to this day. I kept it to myself.

I got my final exam results the next month and was now a qualified Radiographer.

I got my first job in The Downe Hospital, Downpatrick, starting on 2nd, January 1969.

It was a small department. After just a few weeks on the job, I was asked if I would be confident enough to start on- call rota. This meant being on-call for a full week.

No problem, I said, After surviving the 5th October 1968 in Altnagelvin Hospital, I felt I could tackle anything!.

Froma an address by Deirdre Ita O’Doherty. at the 26/1/2018, Civil Rights Event at “The Junction Room”, Hollywell Trust, Bishop St., Derry City

Editor notes: Many historians consider this the day The Troubles began, you can read more about the day from The BBC and RTE. There is also a BBC documentary you can watch on Youtube.

 

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.