Hail Glorious St. Patrick! For many of us, St. Patrick’s Day is the day we wrap up in green and flock to local parades to watch blue-kneed, curly-wigged Irish dancers display their talents in front of the judges’ podium (the back of a container lorry). And marching bands bring colour and a sense of occasion to the whole affair.
They may also be joined by sports clubs, members of the local biker club, or trucks from a nearby haulage company, all showing off their pimped-up vehicles with great pomp and pride.
The day may be enhanced by a pint of Guinness. And there is a general air of celebration and levity, despite unwise attempts at green beer and the insistence of some our American friends on referring to St. Patty’s Day.
However, for all the gaiety, ceremony, and celebration that goes on around it, St. Patrick’s Day for Gerry was coloured by troubling memories.
A seven-year-old child in 1952, Gerry was in his most formative years. And Derry in the early 1950’s was a very interesting place to be at that stage in a little boy’s life.
In the making of his film, “A City Dreaming” he and renowned Derry film maker Mark McCauley, worked through an impressive number of photographs and film footage. One of those images (see below) showed a picture of a policeman attacking a 13-year-old girl. Who turned out to be a friend and neighbour of Gerry’s called Greta Gallagher.
Gerry had watched the action depicted unfold from his bedroom window to the right of the photo. But in his own words, “…wasn’t sure he’d actually seen it at the time and the shock seemed to erase it from his mind. Why would the police use such force in attacking children for no apparent reason?” It became obvious to him years later that the “raised baton was the accepted method of keeping in line the poorly educated and the naïve young. But what about the educated people?” Time would tell. And it did.
A local Daily Journal photographer had taken this photo. But it made its way to a much wider audience on the front page of the Manchester Guardian, as it was then. I guess today we would say that that the image went viral.
St. Patrick’s Day in Derry proved to be a flashpoint that year, 1952. Similar had happened the year before, 1951, when marchers tried to carry a tricolour inside the walled city on St Patrick’s Day. They were forced off the streets by the police both years. In subsequent years a heavy RUC presence on the streets of Derry on St. Patrick’s Day deterred any further attempts to march. Read more at the Museum of Free Derry.
Strike a Pose – Derry Style
Derry was in vogue with the great and the good in those years. 1951 had seen Éamonn De Valera visit the city, an event of considerable magnitude for Gerry’s father, John Anderson. So much so that he even bathed and dressed the young Gerry himself to bring him down to join the crowds lining the streets to welcome Dev:
“…romantic to some and carefully guarded to others, he was Cuban/Irish, New York-born and hero of the revolution.”Gerry Anderson in A City Dreaming
Gerry’s father’s tone when he spoke was reverential and full of awe as Gerry was hoisted up to see the figure of De Valera, imposing even when seated in the open-top car processing through the Derry streets. People were ecstatic. And looking back on it in context, it’s hard now to understand why.
The Arrival of the Queen
The arrival of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was another momentous occasion. Particularly as it happened only one month after her coronation. She visited the city with her husband Prince Phillip. Such was the enormity of the visit that:
“a public holiday was declared by the Governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Wakehurst, so that as many people as possible could see the Queen.”ITV News
More details of the young queen’s visit are on ITV.com/News
The Last Word
Given the growing tensions in Northern Ireland from then on, Queen Elizabeth would not visit Derry again until 2001. So, it was just as well that Gerry had the privilege of meeting her in Buckingham palace on a visit there. While there, it is said, he enjoyed a private chat with the late monarch. There are, however, few witnesses.
As for Greta, we believe she stayed on in Derry. And went on to own a pet shop close to where both she and Gerry had lived. One of her menagerie was a parrot, who had developed the curious habit of shouting “F%*k off” at the top of his voice to any unwelcome arrivals to the shop. The bird was eventually confiscated on the premise of maintaining civil order. But not, I’m sure, before he had insulted perhaps a generously fair share of uniformed visitors!