Belfast Telegraph

William Graham: These yahoos with cudgels, some with nails inserted, were around a group of girls... they were shouting at them, 'Say your Hail Marys now'

It is 50 years since loyalists ambushed a civil rights march at Burntollet in Co Londonderry. William Graham, then a 17-year-old reporter from nearby Maghera, went back to his home town to see what has changed

Civil Rights marchers were ambushed by some 200
loyalists at Burntollet Bridge
Civil Rights marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists at Burntollet Bridge
Loyalists on the hill attack the marchers below

Northern Ireland has been on a long walk towards equality and peace since the Burntollet civil rights march which took place 50 years ago.

The walk has taken us all on a step-by-step journey from the civil rights demands, then the years of terrible violence, the Good Friday Agreement and now an imperfect peace.

Recently, I thought back to those early days of the civil rights marches and especially the road from Belfast to Burntollet and Derry.

It was a dark January evening in Maghera five decades ago when the sound was heard of breaking glass as rioters took hold of the streets in this small Co Derry town.

I was a 17-year-old reporter on duty for the Mid-Ulster Mail and the civil rights march was to have passed through Maghera, but it was blocked by angry loyalists and eventually by-passed the town.

Before nightfall, I had walked the length of Maghera to see what was going on.

On what is now the old Belfast Road, I was surprised and shocked to see men with staves outside the Orange hall, determined to stop any civil rights marches from entering the town.

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As darkness fell, there was confusion about whether the marchers would arrive. Emotions were running high.

At one stage, I went to a red telephone box on the Glen Road to phone a story to the Daily Express.

As I was dictating the story to a copy typist in Manchester, the telephone box was suddenly surrounded by a number of well-built young, angry men, who banged on the windows. They were looking for the civil rights student marchers.

I was scared, as I was wearing a student scarf (not from Queen's University, but from Magherafelt Tech). I emerged from the telephone box to face the angry men, worrying that I was about to get a hiding.

However, in a quick-thinking way, a girl who was with me (not my girlfriend, but a friend) threw her arms around me and started to kiss me.

This simple act defused the situation and was not something the men had expected. Thrown off balance, the small mob said, "Awhh ... awhh'', turned around and left.

That night in Maghera did, however, leave a trail of broken glass and, at daylight, I again walked the street and saw windows of several Catholic-owned shops smashed. These shops had been deliberately targeted.

The rioters had also wrecked a car belonging to a visiting Daily Mirror journalist.

This week, I talked to one of the civil rights marchers - Rose Laverty Scullion, originally from Moneyglass, outside Toomebridge.

As a 17-year-old, Rose had become curious about the march and decided to join in. She was dressed like many students at that time in duffle coat and jeans.

Rose found herself almost accidentally joining the march after seeing it on television. Why did she join? She joined because of issues like poor housing conditions and that, in essence, Catholics at that time were treated as second-class citizens.

After by-passing Maghera and arriving up over the Glenshane Pass and through Dungiven, the marchers were on the roadway at Burntollet when they were attacked.

Rose remembers: "I can recall this so very clearly ... the policeman speaking through the loudhailer and warning us there was a block up ahead and it would be dangerous to go on. He told us if we wanted to go on through, to put up our hoods. I was wearing a duffle coat.

"As we went to go through the yahoos, the boys then came running down from the heights on the right-hand side. The rocks started falling. We panicked and jumped into the field. We ran across the river.

"Then, when we were in another field, these boys with cudgels, some with nails inserted, were around a group of girls.

"They were shouting at them, "Say your Hail Marys now". The yahoos took no heed of me and I fled back into the river.

"There was a man, one of the march stewards, who pulled me out of the river. He said to me, 'Go home'. 'What are you doing here? Go home to your ma'."

Then Rose and other girls were put into Black Maria police vehicles and taken to Altnagelvin Hospital to be checked out.

Finally, I asked Rose, in just looking back, had things changed in her part of the world in terms of equality and community relations?

She said: "To me, things have improved in a general sort of way.

"Catholics, in general, don't feel the same hostility as they did at that time. Here, where I live, people get on very well together.''

I left my home town Maghera in the early Seventies in my journey in journalism and occasionally visit the town to meet friends.

Maghera today is very different from 50 years ago. A busy town, with a very successful historical society and much cross-community work, including a campaign for a public park at Largantogher.

Friends tell me that community relations are very good and that the Churches come together for events.

There is still, like many places in the north, a little undercurrent, with flags of both sides flying around the area.

Even after all these years away, I still miss my home town Maghera. (Machaire Ratha, which means "plain of the ringfort".)

William Graham has been a political journalist for more than four decades

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