The Siege of Derry by Don McCullin, 1971

On the Sunday before Christmas 1971, in an edition filled with advertisements for cognac, port and gift boxes of cigarettes, the Sunday Times magazine published as its lead story a portfolio of 12 photographs about the escalating conflict in Northern Ireland. Particularly shocking was the photo above, which showed the British troops in riot gear charging down William Street after an outbreak of stoning, past the shocked housewives at their Georgian doorways.

It was little remembered now but it was with a great reluctance that the British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in 1969. The civil unrest in Northern Ireland had begun in 1968 and reached a peak in the summer of 1969 with riots in Derry in July and August 1969. After three days of violence, which became known as the ‘Battle of the Bogside’, the British Government agreed that British troops could be deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland.

The thirty-seven year long Operation Banner would begin — sent in to protect both the Catholic minority and Protestant majority from violence toward each other, the troops were initially welcomed by the Catholic minority and disliked by many Unionist politicians (who while welcoming the troops resented the interference by the Westminister government of their handling of Northern Ireland matters).

Don McCullin had first visited Northern Ireland in 1969 and had been making frequent trips to the Catholic Bogside district of Derry throughout 1971. By then, the initial cautious optimism had given way to widening violence. Battle of the Falls in 1970 and Operation Demetrius in 1971 had soured the Catholic views of the deployment and the violence would culminate in Bloody Sunday the following year.

Derry or Londonderry was a focal point of the Troubles in Ireland since the Great Siege of 1689. McCullin followed both the British troops and the disaffected young Catholic youth as they fought increasingly violent pitched battles there. On Page 14-15, rioters escaped over a wall from an attack of CS gas of a burt-out sorting office in the Little Diamond area, near the city centre. Some taunted the soldiers: “Give us more, it makes our hair grow.” On the following pages, McCullin documented a rare moment of jubilation at Little Diamond and a bloodied sergeant major who had been “hit in the head during a William Street affray. Missiles included paving stones, milk bottles and pieces of slate.” In a sequence of photos (Page 21), he captured the rioters attempting to attack soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment.

McCullin was hit in the back and temporarily blinded by CS gas while working on this story.

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