I wrote an essay on the events in Derry in school. I wish I had kept it. No, on second thought maybe I don’t.
In my boy’s mind events in Derry in October 1968 are always connected to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in America three months earlier for no other reason than I had an essay to write about that too and perhaps both had something vaguely to do with what people called ‘civil rights’.
I was quite knowledgeable about Bobby Kennedy because of having to write the essay and all the fuss around his brother’s assassination 5 years previous.I could have told you Bobby Kennedy was murdered in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles by SirhanSirhan and that he asked if everyone was alright after he was shot. A nice man.
There was the student uprising in Paris earlier that summer which I also took an interest in . I knew about exotic revolutionary figures like Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Red Rudi Dutschke
The Argentinian revolutionary (of Irish extraction), Che Guevara had been killed just the previous October in the Bolivian jungle.
Then there was the Prague Spring followed by the USSR invading Czechoslovakia and deposing Prime Minister Alexander Dubček in August.
All of a sudden the world seemed to go crazy. 1968 was a big year in my boy’s mind. To many teenagers like me in Northern Ireland young people rebelling against the established order was mind-blowing and fascinating at the same time.
Derry’s events in October came at the tail end of these dramas.
Unlike my knowledge of events elsewhere, I couldn’t have told you who Eamonn McCann was or any other of the
leading lights of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association or what were the real issues that brought these people out on to the streets of the capital of the county I lived in.- 40 miles up the road. I didn’t even know the city of Derry. The only time I was ever in it was passing through to annual holidays in Donegal.
My news came from the Belfast News Letter and the local and national BBC or UTV. My education was in the state-controlled grammar school system where we learnt all about the kings and queens of England, but were taught nothing, literally nothing, about the Ulster Covenant, 1916, partition or the founding of Northern Ireland. We imagined Northern Ireland was some kind of detached English shire and thought no more about it. In those deferential days and in that system of education we were taught to obey. So we did.
Our focus was carefully kept on events elsewhere.
Part of this could have been due to the fact that – up until then – nothing happened in Northern Ireland. Other places were more exciting. We had no news and more importantly we appeared to have no history either. We were a backwater and we knew it. But of course it was also a deliberate strategy to keep the people in ignorance, particularly the Protestant people.
Unusually for the NI school system, there were Catholics in our school and relations – as far as they went – were good, but none of these Catholics that I can remember until that point had ever attempted to tell us what their experience was like growing up in unionist Northern Ireland. Perhaps their instinct was to keep their heads down. Besides we never talked about that kind of stuff. We had a vague notion it was messy; it was best not to pry into other people’s private affairs.
So when the trouble hit on October 5th 1968, as young Protestant Ulstermen and women, we hadn’t a clue what was really behind it – beyond perhaps a few headstrong students , hippy types who were simply getting in on the act they saw happening elsewhere in the world and rebelling against ‘authority’ for a bit of a laugh.
Then along came Mr. Paisley and Mr. Craig to tell us it was really all a plot against our government and bingo!, we had our narrative.
It’s hardly surprising that a place founded on such ignorance was unable to cope: our ignorance made us easy meat for the masters of war and my ignorant generation made a balls of dealing with the immense problems our elders had secretly bequeathed to us.