Today’s music history lesson is a real history lesson, and not a very happy one at that. This was the day of the “Bogside Massacre” in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, aka “Bloody Sunday” which inspired the U2 song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”
Most of the island of Ireland, including Dublin (from whence U2 and Guinness beer arose) is a separate country, largely Catholic in nature. However, the island was partitioned in 1921, and Northern Ireland is considered part of Great Britain and is largely Protestant. These differences have caused decades of discontent with tension between the religions and between those who are allied to “Eire” vs. those loyal to the Crown in London. By the late ’60s, a movement had arisen in the north to cut the cord to the UK and join the rest of the island in a united Ireland and violent conflicts had become common. In August, 1971 Britain began a law called “internment without trial” for Northern Ireland, which allowed their police or troops to arrest people simply suspected of being violent or subversive, without charging them. Obviously, this didn’t sit well with the locals and between the time the law was passed and the end of the year, over 30 British troops were killed in street violence there, seven of them in Londonderry (or just “Derry” as the locals know it), the district’s second-largest city. Catholics tended to despise Protestants and vice versa; the British Army were present and essentially at war with the upstart IRA.
All this led to the Civil Rights March planned for this day. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association wanted to protest “internment without trial” and parade from the Catholic “Bogside” area of town to the city’s main public area, Guild Hall Square. The British government was willing to allow the march through the Catholic area of the city but ordered the Army in to prevent the protestors from getting close to the civic square. The day began reasonably well enough, thousands of protestors (estimates vary from 3000 to 30 000) started out calmly enough until they encountered a barricade of Army paratroopers and vehicles blocking their path. the majority of them turned and headed in the direction the government wanted them to, but some confronted the troops… and the bedlam and bloodshed began.
The marchers hurled insults and possibly a few rocks at the armed forces who in turn turned water cannons on and fired tear gas at the “rebels.” Knowing when they were beaten, the protestors turned around and ran away, presumably to rejoin the rest of the marchers. That should have been the end of it, but alas it wasn’t. The Army gave chase, shooting at the retreating mob, in the end hitting 26 of them, 14 fatally. Another pair were run down by the armored vehicles. Later studies showed at least 100 shots were fired by them after Army HQ issued a “ceasefire” order.
The result was inevitable. Violence escalated across Northern Ireland and the violent, terrorist to some, IRA grew immensely in popularity. The British government ordered an inquiry, The Widgery Tribunal, which did find soldiers acted in a way “bordering on the reckless” but essentially exonerated them. However, another investigation they launched in 1998, The Seville Inquiry, took a dozen years to complete but in the end slammed the Army.
It said they “lost control” and “concocted lies in their attempts to hide their acts”, discrediting soldiers’ stories about being fired at first (something no witnesses, including journalists present ever corroborated and was not backed by any physical evidence.) It concluded that those shot weren’t posing “a threat of causing death or serious injury” to the soldiers and said the incident was unjustified. The Londonderry coroner of the day also concurred, saying “it was quite unnecessary… it strikes me the Army ran amok that day and shot people without thinking.”
As a result of the inquiry, Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for the British actions.
Not surprisingly, the slaughter enraged many artists too. A number of plays and books have been written about it and only two days after it happened, Paul McCartney had written and recorded a song about it , “Give Ireland back to the Irish.” The BBC promptly banned it.
Also not surprisingly, it had a major impact on the members of U2, who were school kids at the time. The politically-outspoken band wrote “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in summer 1982 for their third album, War. The album came out in early 1983 to critical accolades. Rolling Stone suggested “the songs here stand up against anything on The Clash’s London Calling” and gave it a 4 star out of 5 rating and it enhanced their reputation and profile in North America. War went on to be their biggest album to that point, being certified multi-platinum in the US and Canada as well as in the UK. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was released as a single in March of that year and while not as big a hit as “New Year’s Day”, it became one of their signature songs. The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame picked it as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock’n’Roll” and Time listed it as one of the top ten protest songs of all-time. U2 play it at almost every concert, typically with Bono opening the song by shouting “this is not a rebel song.” Bono apparently re-wrote the original lyrics The Edge had written to make it less specific to the events of the one day. Drummer Larry Mullen explained why in a 1983 interview: “We’re into politics of people, we’re not into politics. People are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we’re saying ‘why? what’s the point?’… let’s forget the politics, let’s stop shouting at each other and sit around the table and talk about it.”
That day hasn’t come to fruition yet, but at least Northern Ireland is a calmer place of late. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 acknowledged the differing concepts of what Northern Ireland could be and gave it some level of autonomy as well as the right to secede entirely from Britain if it chose to. The violence of the IRA has largely subsided and been evolved into political discussions so there’s hope there’ll never be a repeat of the events of Bloody Sunday. And perhaps, in a small way, we have U2 to thank for that.
Sometimes rock is more than just music.