Bloody Sunday is recalled in N. Ireland

January 30, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland -- Bernadette Devlin McAliskey reads her Bloody Sunday Memorial Lecture in the hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians like a poet declaiming steely verse written under the gun.

She's a heroine of the Catholic civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, grown handsome and matronly, unmellowed and unbowed, into the middle age of The Troubles, as the 25-year-old armed struggle against British rule is called here.

Her round, full face, with its small Gaelic nose, has the map of Ireland on it, as they used to say in the old neighborhoods. Her roots go deep into the ancient pre-Christian Irish soil of County Tyrone. She and her husband were both shot by loyalists to the British in 1981.

She marched on Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, when British soldiers fired on the demonstration and killed 14 people. She will march again today. Bloody Sunday lives in the mythology of the Catholic north unlike anything in the United States, including Kent State University.

"We remember that day," Ms. McAliskey says.

"Oddly, the sun was shining at the end of January. And people just swept down the hill from Creggan. And the feeling among the crowdwas [of] good things happening.

"Apart, perhaps, from one or two wise heads," she says, "old Benny Gallagher being one. He knew and could feel the tension in the air and indeed said that somebody was likely to be killed before the day was out. And indeed he was right."

It's a small city, Derry, as the Catholics call it, and everybody knows everybody else and their politics and their hates and their sorrows. The axiom that all politics is local applies here to The Troubles: All deaths are personal.

The marches here were inspired by the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Catholics of Northern Ireland were rising up against discrimination. Creggan was a neighborhood of poverty, ill health and unemployment and remains so to a large extent today.

The Bloody Sunday marchers were protesting specifically against internment of political dissidents without trial.

"And on that day in January," Ms. McAliskey says, "the British government through its military and its subsidiary government here in the north of Ireland deliberately chose to terrorize the nonviolent, peaceful and law-abiding movement off the streets."

Her view is not one that even all Catholics would subscribe to in Derry, the republican and nationalist heartland of the north. But here in the Hibernian hall, her account of Bloody Sunday has the authenticity of incantations from the Fenian Cycle of the 9th century.

About 200 people listen closely. They are mostly nationalists and republicans who earlier on this day had brought their hopes before the first Sinn Fein Peace Commission.

Sinn Fein is the political wing of the republican movement; the Irish Republican Army is the military wing. The deaths on Bloody Sunday turned many of the northern Catholics toward the

republicans and their armed struggle.

"After Bloody Sunday," she says, "there was no longer any doubt there was nothing the British government would not do."

On this late January night, it's raining on Foyle Street by the river. It's Friday, and the pubs are full.

Ms. McAliskey is unimpressed by the peace initiative of Prime Ministers John Major of Britain and Albert Reynolds of Ireland.

"Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Major have written their clever little document, a fine piece of work for a man who used to be in the circus and another who used to run a dance hall," she says. "But I'll tell you this: I for one, I'm not dancing to their tune or performing in their circus."

Her audience loves it.

"There is a dream to be dreamed by every young person under 25 years in this country," she says. "A dream that for the very first time, they might live in a nonmilitarized society, in a democratic society, in a society where their dignity and integrity is respected, not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are."

She's given a fine, lyrically intransigent Irish speech that echoes the idealism of the 1960s. And you wonder, finally, if it has relevance in the '90s.

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