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Phil Coulter on Bloody Sunday: ‘You just felt the whole city had been violated’

The consequences of that day left a lasting impact on the lives of the people of Derry

In Derry almost everyone has a story about Bloody Sunday. Those who were children at the time remember playing football on the street as the news of the shootings filtered back that Sunday afternoon, or being sent home from school by their teachers as a protest the following day.

Others remember the pall that fell over the city, the rain that poured like tears on the day of the funerals, or the brothers and sons who joined the IRA as a result. Most of all, they remember the victims – their relatives, friends and neighbours.

"It wasn't just the 14 victims, the 14 families, it was all of us," says Phil Coulter. "You just felt the whole city had been violated ... Did I feel that this was an affront, an invasion of Derry as my home town? I think a lot of us felt that way."

To feel that eruption of violence right in the middle of where I had lived was truly shocking. Bloody Sunday was done in broad daylight

The singer-songwriter was in the US at the time and realised he knew one of those who had been killed. “Gerry McKinney, he used to run the Ritz down the Strand Road, it was a ballroom that had roller-skating and they used to hold céilí in it as well.


“The thing I do remember most vividly is watching the coverage of the funeral [on television] and having a feeling deep inside my gut that I should have been there, as a Derry man I should have been there in solidarity.”

Artist Willie Doherty was there as it unfolded. Twelve years old on Bloody Sunday, he watched from the back bedroom of his family's home on Chamberlain Street as people ran from the British army vehicles driving into the Bogside.

“One of them drove through the wire fence on this waste ground and people [were] kind of being tossed in the air.

“Then they drove into this car park area ... they actually just started shooting at the crowd and up towards the flats as well ... they were shooting indiscriminately and shooting live rounds.”

He too knew one of the victims, Hugh Gilmour, who lived in the nearby Rossville flats: "He was 17 and I just knew him as an older boy locally, and I know that some friends of his and people around the same age subsequently joined the IRA and ended up in prison for a number of years."

This was one of the “dramatic and impactful consequences” of Bloody Sunday. “Lots of people made the decision to become involved in armed struggle who perhaps in another set of circumstances wouldn’t have, made that decision.”

Journalist, campaigner and former chair of the Bloody Sunday Trust Eamonn McCann was also there. He had grown up in 10 Rossville Street, at the heart of where Bloody Sunday unfolded.

“To feel that eruption of violence right in the middle of where I had lived was truly shocking. Bloody Sunday was done in broad daylight, the brazenness of that, the contempt that that showed,” he says. “State forces opened up on a large crowd campaigning for democracy, on a civil rights march, in broad daylight in a discrete time and place. It was devastating, and that is what has come down through the years.”

It was also a turning point for journalist and author Susan McKay. A Protestant from Drumahoe, on the outskirts of Derry, she remembers being kept home from school the next day not in protest over what had happened, but because her parents were concerned there might be trouble.

“It very much indicates the sense that we didn’t feel part of the community that had been attacked. My parents were shocked and horrified by Bloody Sunday but they definitely didn’t feel it was something that had been done to their community.

“While it really did impact on me, I think it took longer for the impact to be felt than it did on people from the community that it was visited on, and I have been very keenly aware over the years that Bloody Sunday had a very different impact as a whole on the Protestant community.

“Part of the reason I ended up becoming a journalist was that political awareness that this was such a profound thing that happened in my city and yet not in my city. It brought home to me that dislocation that exists within the North.”

It also helped turn Doherty into the artist he became. Media coverage, especially of the now-discredited Widgery inquiry, left him with “this sense of injustice that something I had seen happen was denied”, leading to later question “what photography might mean in a place where the whole question of truth and storytelling and accountability seemed to be unstable or contested in some way”.

The dividend of the peace process and of Saville might be more conceptual than something that has made changes to the quality of some people's lives

For McCann the impact of Bloody Sunday on Derry, on the Troubles and on Northern Ireland was profound. Fifty years on, for all the achievement of the Saville inquiry and its declaration that the killings were "unjustified and unjustifiable", the fact remains that the British state has "got off the hook. This was a state atrocity for which the British state has paid no price."

McKay describes how on the road she grew up on, flags are still flown supporting the Parachute Regiment; she has interviewed victims of IRA atrocities, who are “angry a lot of money and attention has been poured into the legacy of Bloody Sunday” and who “don’t feel they have been treated equally, or had their suffering acknowledged in the same way”.

Yet she also sees how Derry has changed, and praises the "very brilliant, imaginative work" done by, among others, the Apprentice Boys, Martin McGuinness, and organisations such as the Bogside Residents Association "who have worked together to take the bitterness out of community relations".

Yet for all the significance of the Saville inquiry, says Doherty, he still feels “a psychological weight that is still there, that perhaps at some level is still connected to Bloody Sunday”.

“There seems to be a generational burden that continues to be felt, in terms of continuing socio-economic deprivation and a sense of injustice that kind of pervades the place. So the dividend of the peace process and of Saville might be more conceptual than something that has made changes to the quality of some people’s lives.”

In 1973 Coulter’s response to the “growing sense of frustration, anger, bewilderment” at internment and the events which culminated in Bloody Sunday and subsequent “whitewash” of Widgery was his “love song for my town”, The Town I Loved So Well.

Another regret is that he was not in Derry for the publication of the Saville report. “There was that sense that no matter how long it had taken to right that wrong, it had happened, and I think that was very important to the whole psyche in Derry.”

He cites it and Derry’s year as UK City of Culture in 2013 as “a great shot in the arm”; he recalls on a recent trip to Derry seeing a sign that said “tour bus parking” and he stood and looked at it: “When I was growing up, tour buses left Derry to go anywhere else. People on the walls are speaking French, Spanish, Italian. Derry has become a destination.

“By nature I’m optimistic, and I would like to think that we’re through the worst of it and that’s the ‘bright brand new day’ that’s mentioned in the song.”