The Belfast to Derry Civil Rights March, January 1969

Selection from Bernadette Devlin, The Price of My Soul (1969)


Bernadette Devlin played a key role in organizing the radical students’ group People’s Democracy at Queen’s University in Belfast in 1968.  As part of her activism, she participated in the January 1969 civil rights march from Belfast to Derry.  Her popularity led to her election to the British Parliament as an independent (she was 21 at the time and is the youngest person to have been elected to the Westminster Parliament).  The Price of My Soul is her 1969 memoir, written after her election to Parliament and high profile arrest (and imprisonment) for having participated in the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969.


And then we came to Burntollet Bridge, and from lanes at each side of the road a curtain of bricks and boulders and bottles brought the march to a halt.  From the lanes burst hordes of screaming people wielding planks of wood, bottles, laths, iron bars, crowbars, cudgels studded with nails, and they waded into the march beating the hell out of everybody.

…As I stood there I could see a great big lump of flatwood, like a plank out of an orange-box, getting nearer and nearer my face, and there were two great nails sticking out of it.  By a quick reflex action, my hand reached my face before the wood did, and immediately two nails went into the back of my hand.  Just after that I was struck on the back of the knees with this bit of wood which had failed to get me in the face, and fell to the ground.  And then my brain began to tick.  “Now, Bernadette,” I said, “what is the best thing to do?  If you leave your arms and legs out, they’ll be broken,  You can have your skull cracked, or your face destroyed.”  So I rolled up in a ball on the road, tucked my knees in, tucked my elbows in, and covered my face with one hand and the crown of my head with the other.  Through my fingers, I could see legs standing round me:  about six people were busily involved in trying to beat me into the ground, and I could feel dull thuds landing on my back and head.  Finally these men muttered something incoherent about leaving that one and tore off across the fields after somebody else.

When everything was quiet, and five seconds had passed by without my feeling anything, I decided it was time to take my head up.  I had a wee peer round….  The attackers were beating marchers into the dithes, and across the ditches into the river.  People were being dragged half-conscious out of the river.  Others were being pursued across the fields into the woods.  Others had been trapped on the road and were being given a good hiding where they stood.  As I got shakily to my feed and looked round, I saw a young fellow getting a thrashing from four or five Paisleyites, with a policeman looking on:  the policeman was pushing the walking-wounded marchers up the road to join the front rows and doing nothing to prevent the attack….

As I turned to walk away, an unconscious girl who was bleeding about the head somewhere was carried by two of the marchers to a police truck, and the constable in the truck pushed her away with his foot.  “She must get to the hospital,” said the marchers, pushing her in.  “Take her to the hospital yourself,” said the constable, pushing her out.  At that, two other officers came over and threw him out of the truck.  “For Christ’s sake, let the child in,” they said.  A few policemen were at least trying to stop us from being killed, but the others were quite delighted that we were getting what, in their terms, we deserved.

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