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The songs, films and poems of Derry’s Bloody Sunday

The events of January 30, 1972 have been retold across multiple media within the last 50 years. Though not exhaustive, Aine Toner looks at how several creatives responded


James Nesbitt in Bloody Sunday

James Nesbitt in Bloody Sunday

James Nesbitt in TV film Bloody Sunday

James Nesbitt in TV film Bloody Sunday

Jimmy McGovern's TV drama, Sunday

Jimmy McGovern's TV drama, Sunday

Give Ireland Back to the Irish by Paul McCartney

Give Ireland Back to the Irish by Paul McCartney


James Nesbitt in Bloody Sunday

Two days after events, Paul McCartney recorded Give Ireland Back to the Irish. It was banned by the BBC but reached number one in the Republic of Ireland’s charts.

In his new book, The Lyrics, on which he collaborated with local poet Paul Muldoon, Paul wrote of his shock of the incident: “It looked as if our Army boys has acted indiscriminately and fired on innocent people.

“There was immediately a cover-up, claiming that the protesters weren’t innocent but had rifled. But it seemed to me a reasonable demonstration, the kind that had been happening in Black communities throughout recent history.”

Bloody Sunday influenced another Beatle too — that same year John Lennon released Some Time in New York City, with a song entitled Sunday Bloody Sunday. Much has been debated over the wording though Lennon said in response, “My songs are not there to be digested and pulled apart like the Mona Lisa.”

The Wolfe Tones covered Lennon’s song on their 2004 album, The Troubles.

Just a decade after Lennon’s commemoration, U2 would release its Sunday Bloody Sunday, the opening track on its War album. The lyrics focused on an observer to the Troubles, with Bloody Sunday at their core. The line ‘How long, how long must we sing this song?’ is etched into the minds of many who grew up in the 1980s, and beyond.

In 1983, the year the song was released, drummer Larry Mullen said the band was into the politics of people, not politics.

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“There are a lot of bands taking sides saying politics is crap, etc. Well, so what! The real battle is people dying, that’s the real battle.”

Christy Moore’s Minds Locked Shut from his 1996 album Graffiti Tongue details the events of the day and names those who needlessly lost their lives. In 2020 commemoration, the musician adapted the song to include all 14 victims, the last of which died four months after the event.

In the 21st century, Celtic metal band Cruachan addressed the incident in Bloody Sunday on their 2002 album Folk-Lore, while eight years later, T with the Maggies released Domhnach na Fola, the Irish for Bloody Sunday. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill were inspired to write the song after former British Prime Minister David Cameron read aloud the findings of the Saville Inquiry.

Following the Widgery Report findings of 1972 — which concluded there would have been no deaths had there not been an illegal march — poet Thomas Kinsella published Butcher’s Dozen, written and issued within a week. Kinsella later said: “I debated with myself at the time whether to keep it anonymous, but that would have been wrong. Commitment is important when faced with wickedness and injustice.” 

The poem is full of ghostly and other worldly imagery, concluding with the protagonist watching the rain pour over the city, ‘in silent grief from hill to hill.’

Seamus Heaney’s Casualty describes a friend’s death after defying the curfew imposed after Bloody Sunday. Louis O’Neill was a fisherman and Heaney links loss with a fishing trip the friends took. The poet makes reference to the incident’s victims’ funeral, writing, ‘Coffin after coffin/ Seemed to float from the door/ Of the packed cathedral.’

Proud Derry man Brian Friel’s play The Freedom of the City was first produced in 1973. It focuses on the viewpoint of three civilians who accidentally end up in the mayor’s parlour in the Guildhall in the aftermath of a civil rights meeting. The sharing of their stories is juxtaposed with a subsequent trial of inquiry.

An earlier version of the play, started almost a year prior to Bloody Sunday, was modified in the aftermath.

This was the playwright’s first direct examination of Northern Ireland’s political upheaval.

Over 30 years later, in 2005, a dramatisation based on the Saville Inquiry opened in London. Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry is a two-hour intense distillation of over four years of evidence and written by journalist Richard Norton-Taylor. Called a ‘necessary triumph’ and an ‘exceptionally gripping courtroom drama’, it is currently on stage in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and available to watch online.

It’s perhaps no surprise that adaptations of January 1972 events were transported onto the small screen. The day’s events have been dramatised in two TV films, both released three decades after the events they’re depicting. In Bloody Sunday, James Nesbitt played Ivan Cooper, a SDLP MP central to organising the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march. Critically acclaimed, it won the Audience Award at Sundance and the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Speaking in 2010, James said making the film, “helped me realise that this episode was the watershed, and that the ensuing 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland were in large part due to what happened that day in 1972.”

A week after Bloody Sunday was aired, Jimmy McGovern’s Channel 4 drama, Sunday, was broadcast. It focused on the events through the families affected, specifically Leo Young, older brother of John Young, who was killed on the day.

In visual art Derry-born Willie Doherty has amassed a significant body of work addressing the Troubles, with 30 January 1972 specifically linked to Bloody Sunday.

As a 12-year-old, the now acclaimed artist was a witness to the tragedy and began taking black and white photographs of the city, hoping to counteract those images awash with political violence that so many viewed.

Robert Ballagh felt drawn to imagery from the past when creating The Thirtieth of January, in particular Goya’s The Third of May which depicts the execution of Spanish people on home soil by the invading French army.

In both pictures, the focus is on the victims to whom the atrocity is happening.

It was perhaps only natural that imagery spread onto our gable walls. In the Bogside there remains a reminder to everyone painted to honour the 25th anniversary — the depiction of Jackie Duddy being carried away from the scene with Fr Edward Daly waving a white handkerchief, a sadly iconic image of that January day in 1972. A second mural, painted in 1999, contains portraits of the 14 killed.

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