5 July 2007 Edition
Remembering the Past
The Falls Curfew
At about three o’clock on Friday, 3 July 1970 what became known as the Falls Curfew began. Enraged by the events of the previous week where the IRA and the people of Belfast’s Short Strand had successfully repulsed a loyalist attempt to burn down the area, during the battle of St Matthew’s, the British - stripped of their propaganda claim to be impartial upholders of the rule of law - sealed off Balkan Street on the Lower Falls area searching for the very arms that had been used to defend the Short Strand.
The infamous Black Watch regiment of the British Army took up positions and was immediately confronted by the women of the area. They drew batons and began to attack the people as more people came out to confront them. The escalating situation saw the Black Watch fire CS gas canisters and then live rounds. At about six that evening armed IRA units were visible on the streets. A battle raged all night but by dawn it was clear that instead of withdrawing, an enraged British Army was determined to punish the entire community with punitive door-to-door raiding. It was the beginning of three days of brutality and mayhem perpetrated by the British Army on the people of the Lower Falls. During the three-day curfew the British killed four people, injured hundreds more and wrecked hundreds of homes. Helicopters circled overhead announcing the curfew while the Black Watch Regiment was forced to fight every inch of the way into the area. Kicking in the doors of houses and smashing them up.
Saturday was a tense day where the people were confined to their homes under threat of death - the four murders that occurred during the curfew bore testimony that this was no idle threat. Much of the day was spent cleaning up and comforting distraught family members.
At about five that evening a British Army officer announced by loudspeaker that people could come out for one hour to secure vital supplies and immediately the streets filled with people who talked amongst themselves, many only then fully realising the scale of the devastation inflicted by the British Army assault the area. There were scuffles between British soldiers and locals during that hour and even children did not escape the brutality. An eight-year-old boy had his head split open by a British army baton and was then refused permission to be taken out of the area for badly needed medical attention.
Saturday night was a nightmare for the people as drunken British soldiers roamed the streets shouting abuse at them.
On Sunday morning people were assaulted and subjected to vile sectarian abuse as they attempted to make their way to Mass and were forced back into their homes. People were unable to obtain even the basics as the British soldiers had looted all the shops in the area.
And then news began to filter through the area that thousands of people, mostly women, were marching towards the area in a determined attempt to break the curfew.
In a mass show of defiance against the British Army and of solidarity with the people of the Lower Falls, thousands of women, many pushing prams loaded with bread, milk and eggs, broke the curfew. Barriers were swept aside, British soldiers and their machine-gun posts were overwhelmed by the crowd, forcing British Army commanders to order their men back to barracks.
The curfew was over and the British Army had been exposed as an army of occupation. Northern nationalists would never again look them upon as anything other. The organiser of this daring act of mass civil disobedience was Sinn Féin’s Máire Drumm who, during the violent pogroms of August 1969, had emerged as an organiser, working tirelessly to re-house families who had been forced to flee from their homes by unionist mobs.
The four people murdered during the curfew were local men William Burns, Patrick Elliman and Charles O’Neill and freelance journalist Zbegrew Uglickt.
The Falls Curfew occurred 37 years ago this week.
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