Bernadette Devlin on Loyalist ambush at Burntollet (1969)

Political activist and Nationalist MP Bernadette Devlin was with around 60 People’s Democracy marchers when they were ambushed by Loyalists at Burntollet on New Year’s Day 1969:

“And then we came to Burntollet Bridge, and from lanes at each side of the road a curtain of bricks and boulders and bottles brought the march to a halt. From the lanes burst hordes of screaming people wielding planks of wood, bottles, laths, iron bars, crowbars, cudgels studded with nails, and they waded into the march beating the hell out of everybody.

I was a very clever girl; cowardice makes you clever. Before this onslaught, our heads-down, arms-linked tactics were no use whatever, and people began to panic and run. Immediately my mind went back to Derry on October 5th and I remembered the uselessness of running. As I stood there I could see a great big lump of flatwood, like a plank out of an orange-box, getting nearer and nearer my face, and there were two great nails sticking out of it. By a quick reflex action, my hand reached my face before the wood did, and immediate two nails went into the back of my hand. Just after that I was struck on the back of the knees with this bit of wood which had failed to get me in the face, and fell to the ground.

And then my brain began to tick. “Now, Bernadette,” I said, “what is the best thing to do? If you leave your arms and legs out, they’ll be broken. You can have your skull cracked or your face destroyed.” So I rolled up in a ball on the road, tucked my knees in, tucked my elbows in, and covered my face with one hand and the crown of my head with the other. Through my fingers, I could see legs standing round me: about six people were busily involved in trying to beat me into the ground, and I could feel dull thuds landing on my back and head. Finally, these men muttered something incoherent about leaving that one, and tore off across the fields after somebody else.

When everything was quiet, and five seconds had gone by without my feeling anything, I decided it was time to take my head up. I had a wee peer round, ducked again as a passing Paisleyite threw a swipe at me, and then got up. What had been a march was a shambles. The first few rows had managed to put a spurt on when the attack came, had got through the ambush and were safely up the road. The rest of us were all over the place. The attackers were beating marchers into the ditches, and across the ditches into the river. People were being dragged half-conscious out of the river. Others were being pursued across the fields into the woods. Others had been trapped on the road and were being given a good hiding where they stood.

As I got shakily to my feet and looked round, I saw a young fellow getting a thrashing from four or five Paisleyites with a policeman looking on: the policeman was pushing the walking-wounded marchers up the road to join the front rows and doing nothing to prevent the attack. “What the bloody hell d’you think you’re doing?” I shouted at him, hereupon he gave me a vigorous shove and said. “Get up the road to the rest of your mates, stupid bitch.” (Policemen always call me a stupid bitch, and I deny that I’m stupid.) … Even the other policeman protested to the fellow who had pushed me. “Mind the way you throw those kids about they’re getting enough.”