50 years ago this month, two men died of injuries they sustained in beatings inflicted by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

These Troubles-related deaths were the first since the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force committed three sectarian murders three years earlier.

Francis McCloskey was beaten during an RUC baton charge against a group throwing stones at Dungiven Orange Hall in Co. Derry. “He died from a fractured skull and torn artery.” As part of an inquiry into the violence of 1969, Lord Justice Scarman reviewed the incident and exonerated the police.

Samuel Devenney died the same week from internal injuries suffered two months earlier. Youths were throwing stones. Thinking some of them found refuge in Devenney’s Derry City home after being chased, members of the RUC “broke down the door” and used their batons against him and his family.  Scotland Yard detectives investigated his death. They concluded the officers’ “conspiracy of silence” left them with inadequate evidence to charge a crime.  

The deaths, occurring ten months into the civil rights movement, signified that Northern Ireland’s descent into the Troubles had begun. At the time, no one foresaw how Northern Ireland was on the precipice of 30 years of violence that would take more than 3600 lives.   

20,000 people attended Devenney’s funeral. Tension, fear, and anger rose in the local population. They suffered a communal trauma - a senseless loss of life, hideous abuse of power, and a growing feeling of helplessness and alienation. The trauma was compounded only a few weeks later by the annual Apprentice Boys Parade and shaped how nationalists reacted to events for years to come.

In 1689, apprentice boys closed Derry’s city gates and stopped Catholic King James from capturing the town, during the three-month-long “Siege of Derry.” Every year on August 12, the apprentice boys’ success is commemorated by an Orange Order march along Derry’s old city walls.  

On August 12, 1969, Member of Parliament Bernadette Devlin (now McAlsikey) and Eamon McCann organized a civil rights march. It was a “counter-demonstration” to the parade. Skirmishes between the marchers were triggered when Protestants threw pennies down onto the Catholic Bogside. After two hours of clashing, baton-wielding members of the RUC charged into the Bogside and ignited the infamous two-day “Battle of the Bogside.”

Devlin led the resistance to the police charge, organizing “the manufacture of petrol bombs” and using a loudspeaker to urge the defenders “to throw them hard and straight.” Teenaged Martin McGuinness threw stones at the police. When John Hume attempted to mediate, the police shot him “in the chest with a gas cartridge at point-blank range.” For the first time, police in Northern Ireland used CS (tear) gas.

The RUC and B Specials (who had been called in to assist) were unable to quell the violence. As a result, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson sent the British army in to “prevent a breakdown of law and order” and restore peace. Although the violence subsided, residents effectively made the Bogside and Creggan “no-go” areas by preventing the RUC from entering. 

In her book The Price of My Soul, Devlin described the significance of the battle for nationalists: “In fifty hours we brought a government to its knees, and we gave back to a downtrodden people their pride and the strength of their convictions.” She called it a “turning point” and said: “The people have made their situation clear. We will fight for justice. We will try to achieve it by peaceful means. But if it becomes necessary, we will simply make it impossible for an unjust government to govern us. We will refuse to have anything to do with it.” 

The Battle of the Bogside was indeed a turning point. First, as Derry quieted, riots spread to Belfast. There, eight were killed and 1500 Catholic families were burned-out of their homes. “More than 5% of all Catholic households in Belfast were displaced.” British troops were sent to end that violence. Now, 6,000 British troops were stationed in Northern Ireland.

Second, the first so-called “peace walls” were erected in Belfast at areas of interface between Protestants and Catholics. Their purpose was to keep the communities separate. This made Belfast the most residentially segregated city in Europe.

Third, the events of August 1969 led to a split in the IRA. The Provisional IRA, modeled on the “Irish physical force tradition” of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, re-emerged and claimed the mantle of defender of the minority community.

Fourth, as the Provisional IRA grew in terms of numbers and arms, they took the offensive against authorities as part of a “Brits-out” strategy. Although nationalists initially believed the troops “were there to protect them against the Protestants,” within a year the soldiers were seen as another enemy. The Army’s Falls Road Curfew Operation and British Parachute Regiment’s involvement in the Ballymurphy Massacre demonstrated they sided with unionists. Soldiers became IRA targets.  

Another IRA objective was shutting down and ending the Stormont government and forcing the imposition of direct rule from Westminster. The IRA believed the British would ultimately abhor direct rule and end it by cutting ties with Northern Ireland. Once that happened, the goal of a united Ireland would be achieved.

As Devlin wrote, if the civil rights movement was unsuccessful in winning equal rights for nationalists, people “will fight for justice.” People learned how to achieve victory by fighting at the Battle of the Bogside. Devlin was calling for total non-cooperation with the government, not spurring on the IRA. But some came to view the IRA as an acceptable alternative to nonviolent protest. 

Policies like “internment” caused IRA ranks to “swell” with new recruits. So did Bloody Sunday, when 14 unarmed civil rights protesters were killed by the Parachute Regiment in Derry.   

On January 30, 1972, Bloody Sunday put an emphatic and deadly end to the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. People were totally alienated, and even moderates withdrew their support for the government. After Bloody Sunday, “most Northern Catholics felt that the Northern State was unreformable and that they would only get civil rights in a united Ireland.”  

The Battle of the Bogside indicated Northern Ireland was accelerating on a downward trajectory. The direction did not change. By Bloody Sunday, two and one-half years after the Battle of the Bogside, Northern Ireland was staring into the abyss of the deadliest year of the Troubles.

This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.

Bernadette McAliskey, nee Devlin