In my late teens I was interested in politics, history, current affairs. So when the marches started here, I remember debating with the local councillor: “Have you not seen what is happening in Paris, London, America, elsewhere? If you ban this march you’ll unleash that sort of violence…”Terry Wright, 2019
Terry Wright’s interview
We all lived with my grandparents plus an unmarried aunt. Very valuable family life. I remember with great affection my Grandad (died in 1956) – I have very strong memories of him, my Grandmother too. I used to sit and talk with them about family history.
I grew up in the Salvation Army. My parents were in the Salvation Army. It opened in the 1880s in Derry. It was the nature of the Salvation Army that you weren’t seen as protestant or catholic – it’s the Reformation faith but it’s not seen as protestant in the way of the Church of Ireland-type Presbyterianism. They’d help anyone regardless of who they were.
So I didn’t grow up with any great sense of labels. My closest friends were mostly from the catholic faith.
I was very young but there were obviously things going on politically, but I just didn’t have any cognizance of them. My parents were political, they voted. I know they always voted unionist because that’s what they were, but they were not hard line. My dad’s closest friend, because he had an interest in cine and movies, was a teacher called Terry MacDonald who was very interested in moviemaking.
Terry MacDonald taught in a catholic school and every Saturday afternoon they used to show films there, the sort of movies you’d see in the cinema, and he’d loan it us and we used to watch them in the house on Saturday evenings so I grew up with John Wayne and Randall Scott and all the musicals of the ‘50s, Calamity Jane and all that sort of stuff. My dad had cine-cameras and he used to take them when we went on holidays. But he died very suddenly – he was 58 – of a massive heart attack, so I’ve never been able to locate those family movies. He was very keen on television too so we had one as soon as you could have one. So that was my life, I wouldn’t say it was privileged but it was very comfortable. We didn’t have the things we have now, like freezers and stuff, but we had a car – we went to the seaside for holidays.
P: Where’d you go on holiday? Donegal?
T: Our holidays were always on the North Antrim coast but the Salvation Army had a band, the Songster Brigade, it was really a choir, and a couple of times a year there was a social event – a bus trip, always to Donegal. Malin, Culldaff, all around the Bloody Foreland, Portnoo, those areas, beautiful beaches.
P: Growing up in the 1950s – it sounds lovely – was it a good time?
T: Yeah. You still had lino on the floor, I was still getting dressed in front of the electric fire, we didn’t have central heating but relatively speaking, we never wanted for anything. We enjoyed what we had and didn’t expect any more. You had the support of all that family around. My Grandparents sat encouraging me to read at home.
P: Family stories?
T: My grandmother had relatives in Glasgow and we had a relative in London. There was my dad’s cousin who’d been in the Second World War and he suffered with what we’d now call PTSD – he was in the western desert on mine-detecting. Sometimes the guys in front of him got blown up. When he came back he couldn’t sleep in a bed, he slept on the floor, developed a drink problem, his marriage broke up… Like soldiers coming back from Iraq, Afghanistan.
My dad, my grandparents, lived in the Fountain area and the period of the 1920s – it was quite a violent time, the war of independence was going on. My grandfather used to work in the Gas Yard now known as the Bogside. We would’ve known that as the Lecky Road in those days. He was walking to work carrying a crowbar because people were being attacked and one morning he got approached – people were being shot in the street, I mean there was 40 people died in the city here between January and June of 1920. A period of intense violence, a mini-civil war. And some of these men molested him and a woman came out and said: “No, leave him alone, that’s Johnny Wright, he’s Salvation Army.” So they left him alone. Those sorts of stories I remember. My aunt had memories of the June Riots and Belfast which made Derry look like a picnic. Derry was a very important port during WW2, so there were lots of servicemen who’d come to church on a Sunday. A musician who came from around Kent but later he was torpedoed and unfortunately lost. They remembered lots of service personnel. That sort of talk. And as a child I would’ve heard it.
P: And then there was the Troubles? Did you as a young man, having heard those stories of the 1920s and WW2 have any sort of presentiment of what was coming?
T: No anticipation whatsoever. In 1965 there was the furore over the location of the university. It had gone outside the city, in Coleraine. My father, he was a Derry man, he was very angry about that. He felt Derry was being treated unfairly in terms of economic development. Some protests, there were sit-downs, they tended to be small groups like the Derry SWP, Eamonn McCann’s group, demonstrating over housing, what they saw as injustices about votes and so on. But I was also taking an interest in things globally – if I jump on to 1968 I was watching the civil rights things on America – MLK, the big demos about Vietnam, Tariq Ali was appearing, big demos in London, Grosvenor Square.
In my late teens I was interested in politics, history, current affairs. So when the marches started here, I remember debating with the local councillor: “Have you not seen what is happening in Paris, London, America, elsewhere? If you ban this march you’ll unleash that sort of violence. I support civil rights, but if you have any sense strategically you will allow those people to march.”
But they didn’t listen and we went on from there. Strategically, it was one of the most foolish decisions they could take. It was exactly what the marchers wanted, they wanted to be blocked. It was wrong ethically, it was wrong morally, because the reforms that were being called for were really justified. It was just wrong. And we paid a heavy price.
Once all the violence started I distanced myself from it, I joined the Young Unionist party, I felt the civil rights movement had morphed into a smash-the-state organisation. I’ve always seen myself as British by culture, education, upbringing. If there’s a vote to unify Ireland, so be it but I would not vote for that. I am a British Unionist. Certainly not protestant. I hate labels. I like to see people as people.
P: I was seeing it all from the perspective of a child – my memories are sort of sense-memories. The TV would be on and this stuff was being reported unfiltered sometimes. Do you think there was a point in ‘68/‘69 where people stopped gathering around civil rights (homes and jobs) and started fracturing so that the society became fissured?
T: Derry was quite a mixed city but there were still neighbourhoods with segregation in terms of catholic/protestant. There were people committed to republicanism and constitutional nationalists. But then throw into that young people of my age who’d been through education, getting exposed to lots of different doctrines and ideologies. I see ideology as a way of not seeing things because it blocks you and you get too fixed. Looking back now, I think that was probably all there… back in the 1920s/‘30s there were always parts of the city that were flashpoint areas. And they re-emerged in 1960s.
Then once it started, it became tribal. If somebody petrol bombs your home, you tend to defend it and yourself and it spirals and so it all goes on. Unionism, which to me is “fear-fuelled politics” anyway, and they saw it as a threat to the state.
P: It must have been very heady with utopian politics, this amazing music, this energy from the young generation, but then on the other hand it’s really unsettling, you’re destabilising everything, breaking things down…
T: The moment that sticks with me most from that period was I left to go to Teacher Training College at Queens in Belfast. I was here in Derry on Bloody Sunday but I didn’t know what had happened and had driven back to Belfast. I walked into the TV room at the students’ accommodation and the news was on – 13 people had been killed. And about half the room cheered and the others sat in stunned silence. And I found that cheering very disturbing. There’s something wrong here. And I thought if we need to know what’s wrong with our country this is the answer.
I went to the States in 72 as a student to work – I got a letter from my dad saying he’d seen the Oxford St bombings in Belfast and how disturbing it was to watch the police shovelling up the remains of bodies to put into plastic bags… We had a family business and quite often the windows would be blown in.
My wife and I actually got married at university – in the Registry Office in the morning to make it legal and then the church in the afternoon. I remember the soldiers, squaddies, some of them were very young, it was obvious that they were ill at ease. There were snipers about, the Army were killing people, there was bombing going on, there were car bombs… I didn’t lose anyone in my family but my cousin joined the police; he took his own life when he was about 44, he developed a drink problem. I remember a lad I’d played football with at school who’d joined the police… Billy… his picture coming up on the TV screen, he’d been shot dead. He was one of the first policemen shot.
P: Burning buildings?
T: August 1969 – the Fountain had come under attack and I helped to defend it because there were friends living there and their homes were being petrol bombed so we built a barricade to repel the attack which had been unprovoked. The petrol bombs – the sound of petrol bombs being thrown and the sound of buildings going on fire, a petrol bomb is not thrown in silence. The only direct noise is psscht! – and breaking glass. The flame would go up. I remember on Sackville Street … there’s a very famous photograph of an RUC Constable in flames – I remember being there that night and seeing him. A petrol bomb fell at his feet. It’s a riot, the noise of a riot.
A night in ‘69 when the CS Gas was first used. I was in Great James St and it seemed surreal – police on one side, rioters or whatever on the other, and they’d hijacked a Mr Softy van and set it on fire. And they’re pushing it down the street with no driver so it veered off to one side and then the chimes started going off and there’s all this riot noise with the ice-cream chimes ringing to sell the ice-cream. Crazy!
Amidst all the street violence and politics people were dying. Some business friends of my father were shot dead in a restaurant by a republican gunman. The IRA later said that it was a case of mistaken identity. Often shoppers would have to vacate the shopping precinct and go home early. On occasions civilians were killed because they went or were sent in the wrong direction and walked towards the bomb.
P: Was it exhilarating? Scary? Annoying? How did it feel?
T: All of them… In the late 1960s, excitement. And then someone beside you would get hit with a brick so blood would spatter everywhere. There was a strange excitement because you felt like you were defending the city. But looking back, you think: “What have we done to ourselves?” And then when the guns came out and the military came in, it went to a whole different level.
Memories of guns – not really. Soldiers, and the police were armed, but I never saw any paramilitaries with guns. And of course the RUC have always carried guns – I grew up with it but I never saw them use one. My cousin’s husband was in the RUC and he’d come and pick her up and he’d be wearing a revolver. It was just something I grew up with. August ‘69 the soldiers came in but I genuinely don’t remember if they had guns or not. They had riot shields and they used to put banners across the street saying “If you do not disperse we will…” do something, I can’t remember what that was. But as it got worse you never saw a soldier or policeman without a gun. That becomes a strange kind of norm.
P: Did you have the sensation that Ireland had become a very different place?
T: Not really – it just is what it is. My dad’s friend lived in Free Derry. I remember driving through barricades and I never experienced any violence but then I wasn’t a target. I always felt that I could go in to Free Derry. There was no police, people had to pull together. So normal law and order, normal criminal activity – probably that’s what gave rise to the paramilitaries because they took on the role to control because the police were no longer able to cope. All areas were similar.
There was a big exodus of population here between 1969 through to ‘73/‘74. About 18,000 moved from the Cityside to the Waterside because of violence and intimidation. It must be one of the biggest shifts in population that’s occurred in Europe. They moved to new neighbourhoods so there was no community, they had to develop it. A lot of young people who didn’t know each other would join bands and everyone got to know each other. And then of course if someone gets killed sympathy spreads through the community and that brings people together. A sense of solidarity. Almost tribal.
P: Ireland is … basically a population that’s been traumatised.
T: Yes I think you’re probably right. I wasn’t conscious of it growing up but if you look at it now, I think we live in a traumatised community, a lot of mental issues of all different types. We now have an expertise with heart surgery because they developed expertise from dealing with bullet wounds etc. I’ve had a triple bypass and have benefitted from this! Certainly I think my generation are pretty damaged.
But you only really get a sense of it when you move out of it. After 3-4 days in England you can almost feel something lift off you. My whole family’s had that experience. I’ve got catholic friends here, a lot of whose families are living in England and they say that their kids comment on the difference when they come back – they think we’re all mad! There’s also a frustration and disappointment with the Good Friday Agreement – it was a big test for a lot of people. My heart told me one thing, my head something else and I eventually went with my head. We thought it would bring real change, a better future, but 20 years down the line it’s not been realised. And Stormont’s been shut down for two years and all these people not actually doing anything but getting paid huge amounts. They come on the television and bark at each other. We’re not where we wanted to be.
P: You can’t just put the past aside, you have to untangle it try to inhabit it for a while to see things differently…
T: But then you might re-traumatise… and then how do you handle it? The past can bring in a new situation, a new legacy. Now they’re wanting everything to go to court to get justice but that’s so difficult because the evidence isn’t really there. You get politicians jumping on the bandwagon even though they know there won’t be justice. I was talking with a member of Sinn Fein the other day: “Why are you doing this? These people aren’t going to get justice. You know that. And if it’s about creating a narrative, you’re stealing the dead for political purposes. You’re re-traumatising all these families.” And similarly on the Unionist side – the guy who runs the victims’ organisation in Fermanagh, he wants people to be seen as victims of terrorism, that’s a political agenda too. Ultimately they’re also re-traumatising the whole community. I wonder if we shouldn’t draw a line in the sand and find another way to support people.
I have hope for the younger generation. My son’s 26 and he’s LGBT and he’s talking about that, not sectarian stuff, they’re talking about stuff where they share the same interests, the same values and research shows that there’s a lot of young people who are more concerned with social justice issues rather than constitutional issues. My generation should be discussing this but they aren’t. Looking back ‘68/‘69 was a lost opportunity – but there’s good things happening.
Terry Wright was interviewed by Philip Davenport at the Holywell Centre in Derry, 2019