It has been a while since we have looked at the city of Derry (or Londonderry if it means all that much to you) in the context of Irish military history. In that respect, the city is mostly synonymous with the famous siege during the War of the Two Kings, whether the more well-remembered events associated with that campaign were real or not. Since those days, Derry had, of course, continued to exist and expand, and like many of the urban centres in Ulster, was a place where tensions between Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists, socialists and conservatives became acute in the 20th century, eventually bursting into widespread, often sectarian violence at the time of the Irish War of Independence.
Ulster as a whole is an under-noticed place for the years 1919-1921, and I fully intend to look at more aspects of the war in the northern province as we go on. Derry, a hotbed of violence in this time, is as good a place as any to start. The general ignoring of the north was begun to some extent by Sinn Fein, the Dail and the Republic at this time. Ulster was a tricky problem for any entity claiming authority over the whole island in line with nationalist republican beliefs, and not just because of the large number of unionists who wanted nothing to do with the Republic. There was also the remnants of the IPP, now re-organised as the Nationalist Party, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, all of which were varying degrees of hostile to Sinn Fein. The Dail had few deputies from Ulster, and the IRA was weaker there than much of the country.
Derry has had a Catholic majority for a long time, and the Irish revolutionary period was no expectation to that. It also had a unionist majority in its political leadership for most of the same amount of time, part-and-parcel of the remains of the Protestant Ascendancy. Incidents of small-scale sectarian violence litter the city’s history throughout the 19th and early 20th century, with the most serious possibly being a degree of rioting that took place around the 1913 Orange Order march. From that year on on both sides of the Volunteer divide, Ulster and Irish, had a force of thousands in the city, but only one, the unionists, were adequately armed. 1916came and went without any uprising in the city or the county, and the first year of the War of Independence similarly went by without any noticeable violence.
While hardly strong, the IRA were active in Derry, as were Sinn Fein, evidenced by the monumental shift in its local politics in January 1920. That month, the combination of Sinn Fein, the Nationalist Party and similarly minded independents won 20 borough council seats to the UUP’s 19, establishing nationalist control for the first time in its history, a shock in what was a city obviously gerrymandered in favour of unionists. A compromise candidate between the two nationalist parties, independent Hugh C. O’Doherty, was chosen as Mayor. He would remove John French from the list of freemen of the city, and refused to attend any functions that involved declarations of loyalty to the King. It was a major sea change for the area, and naturally caused alarm among unionist circles, and largely unionist authorities like the RIC and military.
The escalation of tensions began with an increase in RIC raids in the weeks following the election, with a predictable focus on the home of Sinn Fein supporters and other nationalists. Those arrested were sent to Dublin for confinement, often on charges of illegal arms possession and the finding of “seditious literature”. Nationalists responded with small-scale acts of disruption, such as the cutting of telegraph wires used by the RIC, and unease in the city shot upwards, to the extent that its Bishop cancelled the St Patrick’s Day parade in March for fear of violence.
Beginning in March Derry’s gaol began to be used as an internment location for political prisoners from the south, that included a few TD’s: Mayor O’Doherty was refused permission to inspect conditions in the prison, fuelling rising anger. In April, as the anniversary of the Easter Rising drew near, there were concerns that a copycat insurrection was planned, with the RIC arming themselves to a greater extent than before and local military engaging in routine patrols of the city. News of barracks attacks in the rest of the country and industrial unrest all added to the tension, culminating in a several days of rioting and violence from the 14th to the 17th April. This spate of violence grew from clashes between nationalists and unionists and between nationalists and military escorting prisoners to the gaol. Across the city, military patrols were subjected to verbal and physical abuse from nationalists, behavior returned in kind by regulars and unionists. The 17th was the worst day, with people attacked indiscriminately on the streets by either side. The situation was partly defused when military units were confined to barracks.
May brought further escalation. RIC barracks in the county were the subject of attack, as were individual RIC personnel, four of which were shot in the opening days of the month, though none were killed. The advancement of the Government of Ireland Act, which endorsed partition, inflamed nationalist opinion still further (after all, the election result in January made a mockery of claims Derry should be on the northern side of the proposed border). Industrial strikes brought railways and bakeries in the county and city to a standstill, while masked men carried out their own raids on civil buildings like tax offices. Street violence of a sectarian bent became endemic, with physical assaults and revolver fire common. Unionist panic was fed by rumours of IRA attacks from the direction of Donegal, and militias were soon being formed, with the Ulster Volunteers, having been demobilised after World War One, brought back into being in June.
On the 15th May, Clare-born RIC Sergeant Denis Moroney became the first RIC member killed in the city, perhaps just as a bystander to a fight between nationalist and unionist elements. Bernard O’Doherty, a Catholic civilian, was shot dead a few days later as another period of rioting and violence commenced. The violence was now becoming less spur-of-the-moment and more premeditated, as houses and businesses were targetted for vandalism and burning, and families of either religious persuasion were driven away from their homes by armed men from the other. Unionist militia began to actively hold vital points in the city, like Carlisle Bridge over the Foyle.
In June more barracks’ in the county were attacked and burned, and more gun violence was reported in the city. In many cases it seems that unionist militia operated without any attempted intervention from the police. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there was a growing amount of active collusion between authorities like the RIC and military with the Ulster Volunteers and other similar vigilante groups popping up in unionist areas, which may have extended to arming. On the 20th, five people were killed in a gun battle between nationalist and unionist factions, that spread from what may have been a drunken squabble into a city-wide confrontation, with both sides attempting to seize key intersections and buildings.
The unionists demonstrated an imbalance of firepower between the two groups, with the police and military accused of simply looking on. More property destruction followed, and more pogroms where Catholic families were chased from unionist areas. The streets became dangerous places to walk in daylight. As the month wore on Derry’s IRA battalion, particularly focused around St Columbs College in the north of the city, funneled more men and arms of their own into Derry, and after some bitter fighting and further deaths, a temporary unionist cordon over nationalist areas was broken. By the end of June, the government declared martial law and belatedly sent additional military personnel to Derry to try and restore order: the IRA backed down in the face of 1’500 regulars, much to the chagrin of some officers who wanted to fight it out, with St Columbs later re-purposed as a military HQ. In fairness, there was only so much the IRA could do, lacking the same advantages in popular support and RIC weakness they enjoyed elsewhere. 19 people had been killed in this spate of violence, 15 of them Catholics.
Things settled somewhat in July, thanks to the influx of soldiers and the institution of a curfew. The IRA turned to more unorthodox methods of fighting back, such as with the sabotage of British motor patrols by strewing broken glass across roads; subsequently forced to engage on foot patrols, the British military grew more vulnerable. This may explain why they shot two people at the end of the month, for the apparent crime of breaking curfew: all the while violence began to spread to other parts of the province, most notably Belfast, where similar pogroms erupted in the shipyards and surrounding areas. Barracks buildings continued to be vulnerable to gun attacks and burnings, and armed unionists continued to intimidate nationalists and Catholics, most notably by their control of bridge crossings, forcing some trying to get to work to take boats.
Tit-for-tat attacks and shootings continued for the rest of the year, with killings on both sides. The next serious surge in bloodshed occurred around November 6th, when two RIC were shot dead by the IRA. In retaliation, disguised RIC men attacked and burnt several homes and buildings connected to known IRA members. Three of these RIC were fired upon by British military personnel when they attempted to interfere with the work of a fire tender, with one being killed: it is likely the British thought they were firing on IRA members. Violence continued through to the end of the year, with plenty of shootings, beatings, pogroms and burnings.
It is difficult to fully evaluate the Derry “riots” as a military event. Much of the violence had little in the way of military objectives, and can be described more in terms of the language of ethnic cleansing. The events in June are an exception, essentially amounting to a scattered battle in the streets of Derry, where both sides attempted to take and hold positions of importance, attacking and counter-attacking before the British military instituted some semblance of control. In the end the obvious collusion, whether it was mandated or informal, between the RIC and military on one hand, and the unionists groups on the other, was decisive in giving the “loyalist” faction a decided advantage over the nationalists, who remained weak in terms of arms, organisation and their internal divisions. The situation in Derry was foreshadowing for the same violence that would engulf the future state of Northern Ireland.
In line with events in other Ulster urban centres, the mayhem in Derry would be one of the key reasons for the formation of additional paramilitary forces, whose existence I will cover in time. But in the next entry we will return to the south of the country, to discuss the growing prominence of several figures in the Cork IRA, and an ambush that served both as another sign of growing republican power and effectiveness, and as a revenge-of-sorts for previously unsuccessful operations.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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