Bloody Sunday and Unjust Representations of ‘British’ History

Image description: A muted image of a crowd of people, some holding banners, gathered in front of a white wall on which ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ is painted in thick block letters

On the 30th January 1972, British soldiers shot 26 civilians in Derry. 14 died – 13 outright, and one after from his injuries. They were all Catholic. The youngest were just 17. What started as a Civil Rights protest ended in a massacre which would become the worst mass shooting in Northern Irish history. The fallout of the event would fuel decades of violence and unrest, and the deaths of thousands. And still now, as I write this on the 50th anniversary of the murders, there is no justice. Not one British soldier has ever been brought to justice for his actions on that day. Not one. 

A 2010 report found the killings to be ‘unjustified’ and ‘unjustifiable’, finding that all of those shot were unarmed, civilians posing no serious threat, and that the soldiers put false accounts of the events forward. It resulted in David Cameron, Prime Minister at the time formally apologising on behalf of the UK. But that was it. 

I grew up in what could only be described as basically an Irish enclave in West London. My Oxford friends find it shocking that my half-Italian mother designates me as the ‘exciting’ one out of our friendship group, populated by Gallaghers, Kavanaghs, and Carrolls. Irish culture and identity were a huge part of growing up, my Granny’s stew and the GAA club down the road cementing it in my personal ethos. Trips back ‘home’, as she calls them, would include explorations of Giants Causeway, running barefoot along beaches, having bullet holes pointed out to you in important Belfast buildings. I went to predominantly Irish schools, where we would celebrate St Patrick’s Day and the familiar twang of a Cork accent would slip from the lips of teachers, resonating around a classroom of people to whom that sound meant family. None of us grew up in Ireland, we did not grow up in a place still grappling with its history, but it still continued to grow in us.

And yet I never learnt anything about The Troubles at school. I formally knew nothing of Bloody Sunday besides a teacher playing some U2 in a Music lesson once, the voice of Bono acting as more of a teacher of our own history than those employed by the school themselves. 

In fact, I learnt more about the history of McDonalds as a franchise, than about what is fundamentally basic British history, the history of at least 10% of the UK’s population. Instead, my education consisted of conversations around the dinner table with my father and his inimitable Northern Irish Catholic family, the occasional incredibly traumatic story slipped into discussion over Christmas dinner, or brought up over an episode of Derry Girls. We recently watched Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast as a family, my Granny pointing out parts of her own childhood (she’ll have you know she’s a Lurgan girl though) amongst the violence. It’s jarring. She sat in nostalgia while watching precocious children clambering on barricades, the humour interjected amongst scenes of looting – this was her childhood – and I knew so little of it. 

The events of The Troubles should not be banished just to Irish history lessons, just as the events leading up to the 20th century, from the first Invasion of Ireland by the English in the 1100s, to Cromwell and the Penal Laws, to the Ulster Plantations, and more, should not be compartmentalised into a ‘specialist option’.

The extent of my education into my own history, my own culture, was through media and family. Reading Seamus Heaney’s Storm on the Island at GCSE was the longest discussion of The Troubles I ever experienced in an educational setting. It still is to this day. 

As an English student, anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting in a tutorial with me will know that I take any opportunity possible to explore Irish identity and experience in literature, because for the longest time, this was the only way I could explore that part of my heritage and culture in print. Cut out of our history books, reframed as ‘irrelevant’, relegated to independent research or the snippets my Dad would tell me about his childhood summers spent running around the fields of County Armagh. 

Many British people now, 50 years after the atrocities of Bloody Sunday, could not tell you what happened, how many men died, how much suffering followed. They probably count Derry Girls as their only source of education on The Troubles. British refusal to accept culpability, to provide justice, for the events of Bloody Sunday stretches far beyond the surface. Instead it creeps into culture, how we educate our children, how we present ‘Great’ Britain to the unknowing masses as they sit in front of the whiteboards in History classrooms. History cannot just be the times you win, the times when your king marries 6 wives, or you end yet another war (which you probably started yourself…). We must accept that the curriculum as it currently is blinds us, deceives us all. Growing up in England and being force fed propaganda of British exceptionalism while knowing the experiences of my family members has left me disillusioned with the concept of ‘British History’ – for how could we ignore something so monumental? How could this be kept from us? 

The ignorance of the vast majority of people is not their own fault. They have been steered away from that part of their own history. The events of The Troubles should not be banished just to Irish history lessons, just as the events leading up to the 20th century, from the first Invasion of Ireland by the English in the 1100s, to Cromwell and the Penal Laws, to the Ulster Plantations, and more, should not be compartmentalised into a ‘specialist option’. The history of this country includes far more than what happened on its shores. It includes far more than what happened on the Island of Ireland. And until history is taught, from the beginning of a child’s education until the end, in an impartial and unbiased way, there will be no British justice. 

‘My heart besieged by anger, my mind a gap of danger.
I walked among their old haunts.
the home ground where they bled;
And in the dirt lay justice like an acorn in the winter
Till its oak would sprout in Derry
where the thirteen men lay dead.’

– from The Road to Derry, by Seamus Heaney 


Image credits: kitestramuort via Wikimedia