21 August 1997 Edition

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The unquenchable spirit

By Mary Nelis

Those who stayed continued to struggle and all the efforts, both military, social and economic, did not quench the spirit of the people of Creggan
A full moon, on a balmy August night, complemented the fireworks exploding over the night sky last Friday, as the people of Creggan celebrated 50 years of the history of the estate.

Creggan, the sprawling suburb, built begrudingly and under duress by the Unionist Corporation of Derry, began life as a place designed to take the overspill of the increasingly nationalist population from the gerrymandered South Ward. Its ethos, in the minds of the faceless men who wielded power by fraud and the draconian Special Powers Act, was to keep intact an electoral system designed to perpetuate Unionist minority rule in a nationalist majority city.

Creggan was part of a political mindset, designed to exclude the nationalist working class community from the political, economic and social life of the partitioned state. In simple terms, Creggan was to be a ghetto, a place where nationalists would be placed and then forgotten about. It didn't work. The 50th anniversary celebrations, of collective community pride, by the people of Creggan, gave Derry a day to remember.

The community festivities, which involved the youngest child to the oldest resident, was a triumph for the skill, talent and community spirit which still exits in an estate whose history has been paved by struggle against the apartheid system, which condemned many of the residents of the estate to a life of grinding poverty and constant physical hardships.

Creggan began its life in the post war period of the late forties. The aspiration of the working class nationalists of the city, who lived in appalling overcrowded conditions was to get a house in Creggan. Novenas and supplication to God and Mary were reflected in notes left at various shrines. Songs were written about the issue, for to the poor in the tin huts of the disused US Army camp at Springtown, or in the ten to a room tenements in the Bogside, a house was the fulfilment of their life's ambitions. This was especially pertinent when the TB epidemic struck Derry in the early 50s.

Those who finally made it to the top of the mountain, found that the houses were poorly designed, damp, cold and built on land later described as suitable only for sheep farming.

The estate had no amenities, only one primary school, no church, few shops, no parks, libraries, medical facilities. But for the 15,000 people who were displaced to Creggan from 1947 onwards, it was their home, their place, and their estate.

As the Nationalist population expanded and the Unionist regime refused to extend the city boundary, more houses were built and more nationalists banished to the top of the hill. By the 60's, the first Catholic Church was opened and the only factory which gave some work to the 60% unemployed, closed. Creggan was a place for ``single parents'' before the phrase was even coined, as husbands, brothers, fathers took the traditional migrant trail to build up England's factories, roads and hospitals destroyed by the world war.

In the mid sixties, the expanding population of Creggan began to organise itself in community and tenants groups, to the amazement of the Unionist controlled council. The demands of the people were simple. They wanted playgrounds for the 7,000 children living in Creggan, they wanted a full time school, decent roads, lighting in the streets.

It would be some years later, when those people would look at the wider demands for basic civil rights, the right to work, to vote, to a house.

The 5th of October 1968, almost passed Creggan by. But the homes of the few residents who had television sets were filled by neighbours, who saw the pictures of people they knew being batoned by the RUC.

It was the same RUC attack on the nationalist enclave of Columbs Wells, and the subsequent evacuation of the entire Bogside community to the Bishop's Field in Creggan, while an ultimatum was given to the RUC to leave the area, that created the momentum for Free Derry and Free Creggan. The Battle of the Bogside and the arrival of British troops on the streets of the north, which began the darkest period in Creggan's history. The small Protestant community who had lived peacefully beside their Catholic neighbours and who were an integral part of the life of Creggan, were visited by the Minister of their Churches and told to leave. It was a sad day for Creggan when they did.

Internment was the first phase of the military takeover of the estate. The sound of the siren did indeed become the cry of the morning for the residents, as soldiers and RUC men invaded Creggan, and men and boys disappeared to the various interrogation centres.

But it was Bloody Sunday which killed our innocence. The anti-internment march began at the Bishop's Field and thousands of people walked through Creggan on that bright day, which would end with 13 coffins lined up across the altar of St. Mary's Church. The sky and people of Creggan wept for the loss of their children and their innocence. We all knew that things had utterly changed and would never be the same again.

In July 1972, operation Motorman established British military occupation of Creggan. The estate for the next 15 years would become one large prison camp, with checkpoints in and out, constant house searches, arrests and death. It was indeed hard times.

To the grind of poverty and social disadvantage was added the iron fist of military aggression. To the British soldier from the working class areas of England and Scotland ``the people of the patch'' - Creggan - were all subversives.

For some of the people it was too much. Those who could, left. Those who stayed continued to struggle and all the efforts, both military, social and economic, did not quench the spirit of the people of Creggan.

That struggle for equality, for justice, for the right to live in peace still goes on. We saw it on Friday in the celebrations of the people of Creggan who had refused to be ghettoised. For their triumph and their tears are a lesson for all people who want to be free.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1