On January 30, 1972, 15,000 protestors flooded the streets of Derry to speak out against British rule and occupation of Northern Ireland. Led by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, the demonstrators peacefully protested a new law that gave British police and soldiers the right to internment, which legalized the arrest and imprisonment of Irish dissenters without due process.
With this new law in place, hundreds of protestors, innocent of any crime, were taken and arrested by British soldiers. While some were members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), most were Northern Irish citizens hopeful of sovereignty, peace, and freedom from the constraint of British rule.
Ignorant of the citizens’ right to protest, British soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd to quell their purportedly peaceful behavior. Suddenly, without warning, the soldiers switched from rubber bullets to live rounds. One hundred seven shots were quickly fired at the Irish dissenters, injuring many and killing 14. Henceforth, this day officially became known as Bloody Sunday.
The immediate reaction in Derry, and Ireland as a whole, was one of unabated anger. British authorities murdering innocent people who had the courage to protest against their unruly colonial hegemony was nothing short of evil, yet it was not out of character. Throughout history, the United Kingdom has expended thousands of lives in the name of empire, and it has become clear that they would do almost anything to maintain power. This incident, while heinous, should have come as no surprise.
This anger fueled an immediate call to investigate the crimes committed, inciting the start of the Widgery Tribunal. While the investigation found the British soldiers at fault, the victims’ families were left unsatisfied. Later, the Saville Inquiry, another attempt at investigating the incident, spent years examining the truth of Bloody Sunday. Again, the soldiers were found responsible and court cases were in the works. However, the prosecution rescinded the cases on the basis of ill-found evidence.
These attempts at reform in the courts proved ineffective, which caused some members of the IRA to use violence to make their voices heard. Just days after Bloody Sunday, while the victims’ funeral services commenced, the British embassy in Dublin was burned to the ground by irate members of the IRA. This attack did not stand alone, as weeks later, the “official” IRA detonated a car bomb outside of British military barracks, killing seven.
Robert J. Savage, Interim Director of BC’s Irish Studies Program, further discussed Bloody Sunday, its immediate and long standing impact, and its global implications.
“This was a turning point in the history of Ireland and the United Kingdom,” Savage claimed, describing the rising tensions between the two groups with the introduction of the internment policy.
While the British government called themselves neutral peacekeepers in the Catholic-Protestant conflict, their imperial concerns and capitalist greed clearly forced them onto the side of the Unionists, i.e. those in Northern Ireland who wished to remain members of the United Kingdom.
Savage remarked on the effect of this obvious predilection saying, “What Bloody Sunday illustrated quite clearly to regional, national, and international audiences was that the British were part of the problem, and they shot down these people that were innocent, and then they tried to cover it up.”
“It was a massacre,” he bluntly stated. “Most were shot in the back while running away, and others were shot while crawling away after being shot.” The stark innocence of these victims made the motivations of the British Soldiers unclear and infuriating to the peaceful bystanders. The only thing this massacre brought about was more unrest. Irish citizens flooded the offices of the IRA, searching for a way to join the fight.
“It would be the end of the civil rights campaign,” Savage asserted. There was no longer hope for peaceful reform or progress. Instead, the only option was to fight fire with fire. That year, 1972, became one of the deadliest years of the entire Irish conflict known as “The Troubles.”
Savage’s more recent research takes on television and its impact on Irish society. In this case, “television challenged the narrative the British Government was trying to produce.” Irish and British networks began investigating the conflict in Northern Ireland, finding that the truth was far from the contradictory story told by the United Kingdom.
Additionally, this revelation played right into the arguments of nearby communist nations. China and the USSR pushed anti-capitalist agendas that cited Britain as a majorly oppressive and exploitative world power. “Communists in the Eastern Bloc or in China would say [Bloody Sunday] is the legacy of British Imperialism,” Savage said. “When their citizens rise up, they shoot them in the streets.”
Savage recently attended marches and speeches in Ireland throughout this past commemoration of Bloody Sunday. In Derry, the same people who spoke 50 years ago returned to the stage to emphasize their sentiments.
Eamonn McCann, a popular Irish politician and socialist, claimed that we need to “see Bloody Sunday as not simply in the narrow Irish or British sense.” This instance is unfortunately just one of many massacres that have occurred throughout history and still happen today. Savage connected the Kent State and Jackson State shootings from 1970, as well as other anti-war protests turned violent, to the modern movements of Black Lives Matter and other protesting bodies that are horribly terrorized by the state.
“These civil rights protestors, whether they were at Jackson State, Kent State, or Derry on Bloody Sunday, were peacefully marching and demonstrating their democratic rights,” Savage said. Today, those same peaceful sentiments are used to make voices heard and call for reform. Adhering to the unfortunate tradition, governments continually oppress them by calling them terrorists, violent, and uncivil.
In the context of Boston College, understanding Bloody Sunday and its impact are crucial to developing empathy and awareness of these broader social issues.
“The Irish experience is a shared experience,” claimed Savage, “and there are other people who have suffered in the same way.” While many are unaware, Irish immigrants were heavily discriminated against when entering the United States, and many citizens of Northern Ireland were unwarranted victims of their corrupt policing system. Savage compared the troubled past of Ireland to recent policies in America that discriminate to the same effect.
The Trump administration, for example, implemented policies that demonstrated the “demonization of Latinos as thugs, murderers, rapists, drug dealers, and subhuman.” While all of these assumptions are completely wrong, it is important to remark that Irish people years ago were treated in a similar way.
Savage asserted that this comparison was not used to denigrate or belittle the experiences of marginalized people by juxtaposing it with a now-privileged group, but it was used to call out discriminatory Irish-Americans and force them to empathize with these current victims of oppression.
“We are privileged,” Savage said, “and there’s no denying that. A place like BC can do more in trying to encourage dialogue and empathy.” The only progress that can be achieved must come about through the education of students and a connection between all of them.
“Students were at the forefront of the campaign for civil rights in Ireland, the opposition of the Vietnam war, and the civil rights movement in the United States,” Savage stated, “and students should be more politically aware and politically active.”
Savage then cited recent work done between the Irish Studies and the African and African Diaspora Studies Departments that focused on the issue of policing.
“Northern Ireland had a brutally sectarian police force…and it was seen as propping up a corrupt state,” remarked Savage, “And they were able to reform the police force and integrate it, and there can be much more done here in the US with policing.” The acknowledgment of Ireland’s oppressive past is crucial to understanding the underlying racism within our current state. Conversations between students and scholars are just one way to advance toward progress and reform.
Savage concluded the conversation, calling for privileged people to “not be afraid to speak up. Be supportive of those who dissent, and try to understand where they are coming from and think about why they are saying that.”
As Bloody Sunday remains a monumental moment in Irish history, its modern-day implications extend much farther. It was just one of many times in which peaceful protestors fighting for civil rights were brutally massacred, and it is unfortunate to see this list continue growing to this day. Reflecting on this massacre, one must realize that it is the responsibility of the now-privileged Irish-Americans and other privileged groups to stand up for, empathize with, and understand the dire experiences of marginalized groups. Only through unity and compassion can societal and governmental reform be actualized.
Spends too much time on crossword puzzles. Can make a mean chocolate chip pancake. Proponent of eating the casing on brie.