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Extracts from 'Creggan: more than a history',
by McGuinness and Downey (2000)

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Text: McGuinness and Downey ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following extracts have been contributed by the authors McGuinness and Downey, with the permission of Guildhall Press. The views expressed in these extracts do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
front cover The following extract is taken from the book:

Creggan: more than a history
by Michael McGuinness and Garbhán Downey (2000)
ISBN 0-946451-59-1 Paperback 310pp

Orders to:

Local bookshops, or
Guildhall Press {external_link}
Unit 15, Rath Mor Business Park
Bligh's Lane, Creggan
DERRY. Northern Ireland.
BT48 0LZ
T: (028) 7136 4413
F: (028) 7137 2949

This extract is copyright McGuinness and Downey (© 2000) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the authors and the publishers. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this extract for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the authors or the publisher, Guildhall Press. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

From the back cover:

Nothing about Creggan is ordinary. In its 'pre-history', it was so beautiful that it is said to have inspired one of the greatest hymns ever written. In Victorian times, it housed a nobleman so dissolute that his own coachman was driven to kill him with an axe. And in the early 20th century, the back roads of Creggan were used to smuggle one of the most wanted men in Britain, Éamon de Valera, into and out of Derry.

In later years, a housing development was built on the rocky ground of Creggan. But again, this was no ordinary estate. For one, it was massive - home to 15,000 at its height. More notably, it was to foster a glut of artistic and sporting talent, including a Eurovision winner, a Top Ten rock band, international footballers and Olympic athletes. And, of course, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Creggan was to become a byword for political resistance all over the world.

The conflict left Creggan much to mourn: six of the Bloody Sunday dead were from the estate; all 13 were buried from St Mary's Church on Fanad Drive. William Best, a teenage soldier from Creggan, was shot dead while home on leave visiting his mother. His neighbour on Rarhkeele Way, Michael Devine, was to die on hunger strike in Long Kesh less than a decade later.

There was also, however, much to celebrate. When Dana returned home in her Eurovision triumph, the entire town turned out to welcome her. European boxing champion Charlie Nash got a similar reception. And the street parties of the Creggan 50th Festival were so popular they prompted a visit from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Creggan: More Than a History contains all these stories and much more. It's a book which will take you from medieval raths to modern-day no-go areas, from Jacobite camps to burning barricades, from fields of grass to supergrasses. It's a book which through its contributors and interviewees, relates the passion, pride and humour that make Creggan a place apart. It's a book which, like the people who inspired it, can be occasionally sad, sometimes joyous and frequently controversial - but never ordinary.


There is a story, very possibly apocryphal, about a young boy playing ball in the fledgling Creggan estate when it was only a couple of dozen houses standing on a green mountain top. The lad is bouncing the ball against a gable wall to the rhythm: The Protestants have all the houses, the Protestants have all the houses. With that, a priest comes up and, an early exponent of political correctness, tells the youngster: 'That's not true, son, sure wasn't our Lord himself born in a stable?' Duly chastened, the wee lad recommences his bouncing to the time of: Our Lord was born in a stable, because the Protestants have all the houses.

That Creggan was built as an estate for Catholics is in little doubt, nor is the fact that it was a vital development for Derry, where people were dying because of appalling housing conditions. That the estate was built where it was, in the old South electoral ward, to keep Nationalists in the one electoral area and so ensure Unionist control of the Corporation, is also widely accepted. But what few could have imagined is that the community created would thrive, excel and contribute so much to both its host city and beyond.

Fifty years on, and tens of thousands of people have passed through the 3,000 or so houses which constitute Creggan. There has been much to mourn, but equally there has been much to celebrate. The recent Creggan 50th Festival provided residents and ex-patriots' the opportunity to welcome what everyone hopes will be a peaceful and prosperous new dawn. And it also allowed them to revisit an often troubled, but always fascinating, past.

Importantly for the editors, the festival sowed the seeds for this book. A series of articles was commissioned by the Derry Journal charting Creggan's story, through the eyes of local inhabitants, historians and political pundits. These pieces were collated and, with the newspapers very kind permission, were used to form the skeleton of what we hope will serve as a 'people's history' of Creggan.

The story, as told here, is by no means complete. We have heard tales we would love to have included for colour, craic or completeness, but, as with any work, there are sensitivities to be observed. (More particularly, perhaps, there are lawyers to be satisfied!) However, we hope we do manage to convey the essence of what makes Creggan a place apart.

Dozens of people have aided this production and to them all we extend a heartfelt thanks: to all those interviewed, for their time; to the writers, for their reminiscences; to the historians, for their records; to the politicians, economists and industrialists, for their visions and analyses; to Larry Doherty, Eamonn Melaugh, Dan O'Donnell and all who donated photographs; to Mary Crumley and Eamon Baker for their persistent support; to Guildhall Press, our publishers, in particular Paul Hippsley, Joe Mc Allister and Declan Carlin, for having the patience to wait the extra two years; to our most generous funders, without whom this book would never have seen the light of day; and to our wives and families for being great.

Go raibh maith agaibh uilig.



  In the Beginning... 12
  The Creggan Rath 15
  The Jacobites Arrive 20
  A Green Hill Far Away 29
  The Headless Horseman 32
  Rural Creggan 37
  The Creggan Park Racing Track 41
  Built to Suit Unionists 47
  Landlords and Tenants 53
  Creggan's Unpaid Social Workers 58
  'Mother of Creggan 61
  'Landed' in Iniscarn 64
  They Were Happy Days in Creggan 66
  The Creggan Bungalows 68
  Those Were the Days 71
  The Special Years 77
  Creggan or Foyle Hill Estate? 80
  The Triumph and Turmoil of St Mary's Parish 83
  Society of St Vincent de Paul 92
  War and an Irish School: St Peter's High School 95
  Caught Up in Conflict: St Cecilia's College 99
  The Business of Educating for Business: St Mary's College 102
  Educating for a New Era: St Joseph's Secondary School 104
  On 'Gaza Strip': The Holy Child Primary School 107
  A Haven of Peace: St John's Primary School 109
  Naíscoil na Rinne 111
  The Stream 114
  Creggan - Before it Was Trendy 115
  Melmore Memories 117
  Dana: From Eurovision to Euro MP 122
  No Business Like Show Business: The Kerr Dynasty 127
  A One-Off Comedian: Tommy Kelly 130
  The Undertones' Debt to Creggan 133
  The Traditional Heartbeat: Comhaltas an Chreagáin 137
  An Enduring Commitment 139
  From Little Acorns: St Mary's Boys' Club 142
  The Carlyles: The Legend and the Legacy 156
  Jim O'Hea and the Athletic Academy 163
  From 'Long Shooties' to Lenin Stadium: Terry Harkin 170
  Team-Building the Tony O'Doherty Way 174
  Distance Swimmer and Deep-Sea Diver: Ray Cossum 177
  The Judo Master: Terry Watt 181
  The Modest Olympian: Liam Ball 183
  Boxing Clever: Charlie Nash 187
  John O'Neill: A True Professional 192
  Captain Courageous: Paul Ramsey 196
  Sean Dolan's and Creggan's GAA Revival 200
  The BSR Story 205
  The Spirit of Self-Help 224
  Tackling 30 Years of Neglect:  
  Creggan Neighbourhood Partnership 228
  Rural Creggan Revisited:  
  The Development of the Country Park 231
  Brought to its Knees 239
  A Tragic Case: The McCool Fire 242
  Growing Up Without a Mother: The Thompson Family 246
  Joining the Army 248
  Bloody Sunday 251
  The Killing of Ranger Best 263
  A Soldier's Impressions of Creggan 267
  From a 'Room With A View' to Creggan 276
  To Hunger for Justice: The Story of Michael Devine 281
  'Entirely Unworthy of Belief': Creggan's Supergrass 287
  A Conscientious Objector: Eamonn Melaugh 290
  Creggan's First Resident Mayor 294
  From Street Politics to Stormont: Mary Nelis 298
  Local Elections in Creggan 302
Creggan Tomorrow - A Bright, Brand New Day 308


Trouble Erupts

The danger of driving justice underground became apparent in Derry in the late 1960s. And just as predicted by Archie Halliday, the Unionist councillor who opposed gerrymandering, the inequity sown in the '30s began to arise and wreak havoc.

Civil Rights marches, inspired perhaps by the revolutions in America and France, provoked the fury of the Stormont Government. Action sparked reaction, and reaction sparked more action. Within the space of a few months, Derry was immersed in the Troubles.

Creggan - and its inhabitants - would become intrinsic to the conflict. The area was to pay heavily as it became a symbol of Nationalist resistance. Dozens of Creggan people were killed, hundreds jailed, and thousands forced to endure endless raids, gun battles and riots on their doorstep.

The British security forces would find life no easier as they attempted to establish 'normality' in the estate. Soldiers and RUG men were blown up, shot, stoned and subject to endless vilification - as one of them will recount later in this chapter.

The greatest watershed in the Troubles, however, was undoubtedly Bloody Sunday, and nowhere was to feel the effects more than Creggan. Despite the efforts of conscientious pacifists like Eamonn Melaugh, support for the IRA rocketed. And as Donncha MacNiallais recalls, questions about morality were set aside as people in Creggan joined the army - their army.

Above: IRA show of strength in Creggan, early '70s (Eamon Melaugh)

Above: The playing fields of Creggan just after Operation Motorman, 1972 (Eamon Melaugh)


In his second contribution for this book, Gerry Murray recalls the start of the Troubles and how they affected Creggan Estate.

The year 1968 remains set in the public mind as that which heralded a new era in the modern Ireland, and unleashed forces still powerful almost 30 years later. In the preceding years, we grew up, in the words of TS Eliot, 'assured of certain certainties. In the summer of that fateful year, however, we watched on television riots from Paris to Berlin. Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, and a modern martyr and hero, Jan Palack, torched himself to death in protest at the invasion of his country.

Before the year was over, Derry was destined to appear on television screens across the world. The first marches for civil rights were eagerly grasped by our parents, anxious to see a better future for us in terms of jobs, housing and the ability to control the destiny of our city. The famous words uttered five years earlier by Martin Luther King, 'I have a dream', had a powerful meaning for our parents and symbolised their determination to see wrongs put right. There was a great sense of unity of purpose and a lack of dissent. The politics of non-violence and the songs of the American Civil Rights movement were readily embraced in the spirit of hope and determination.

For the first few years of the Troubles, the Bogside was the centre of media attention; marches and riots took place down-the-town; the British Army appeared on the streets in August 1969 and was initially feted. Within two years all was changed, and changed utterly. Football, one of the barometers of my early life took a downturn as Derry City was forced out of senior football. The words of Phil Coulter had a tangible meaning as 'the town had been brought to its knees'. Football had been caught up in the general anarchy. One of the most enjoyable footballing experiences was to watch TV as Poland drew at Wembley and thus qualified for the 1974 World Cup finals at the expense of England.

The accelerated descent into violence seemed to occur in July of 1971, when Seamus Cusack from Melmore Gardens and Dessie Beattie from Rosemount were shot dead by the British Army. There were a number of eyewitnesses who stated that both were unarmed when shot, and forensic tests showed that Dessie Beattie had not handled explosives. All this information was completely contrary to Army statements. For many young people in Creggan, these deaths were a defining moment in their attitudes to the British Army.

The Cusack family was widely known and popular in Creggan. The deaths of these two young men were seen as an attack on a close-knit community. Black flags appeared in Creggan, barricades were erected and severe rioting occurred at the Army base at Bligh's Lane. Live bullets were fired, this time by the IRA which had a swell of new recruits due to the deaths.

The Army response was to launch a massive search operation in Creggan, flooding the estate with CS gas. That summer of 1971 was a landmark in Creggan's history. By the time we went back to St Columb's at the start of September, Internment had been introduced, and two young men of very different backgrounds had died in Creggan. On 10 August, a 23-year-old British soldier, Paul Challoner, was shot dead at Bligh's Lane; he was the first British soldier to die in Derry. Eight days later, Eamon Lafferty, a 19-year-old commander of the IRA, died in a gun battle at Kildrum Gardens.

The following year, 1972, I left St Columb's, as the estate lived through a further period of violence. Although it was a quarter-century ago, the memories of that fateful year are vivid today. The year started with the massacre of Bloody Sunday, a wound that remains very open. Six of those killed were from Creggan, and the funerals of all the victims took place from St Mary's. The row of 13 coffins in front of the high altar was a chilling sight. Creggan was universal in regarding the state and its security forces as alien and hostile - in short, the enemy.

In studying 'A level English, we were reading Shakespeare's Henry IV the central theme of which was the legitimacy of Henry's rule. On the streets of Derry, the legitimacy and sovereignty of the British state over the North of Ireland were similarly live issues, but were far from being of only academic interest. Operation Motorman in July 1972 initiated the military occupation and surveillance of Creggan.

From 1971, a litany of death was to continue unabated in Creggan for many years to come. Civilians, such as Kathleen Thompson and Daniel Hegarty, were shot dead by the British Army, while civilians, such as John Dunne, died as a result of IRA actions. Eugene McGillan and Colm Keenan were both classmates of mine at the Christian Brothers', and as IRA volunteers they died together, shot by the Army in early 1972. David Wray and Martin Carroll were two of the young British soldiers who lost their lives in Creggan in the '70s. Marcus McCausland from Limavady, an officer in the UDR, was found shot dead at Braehead Road in March 1972. A few months later, a 19-year-old Royal Irish Ranger from Creggan, Willie Best, was abducted by the Official IRA while on leave at home and found shot dead at William Street. These were but a few of the many deaths that occurred on the streets of Creggan in the early years of the Troubles. They highlight how the cycle of continuing and spiralling violence was tearing at the very fabric of society, not only in Creggan, but also throughout the entire city and beyond. The shadow of death, violent death, became a very present feature of our lives, as the 'age of innocence' faded. A very large percentage of the population of Creggan had some relative who was either killed or injured, arrested or interned during those years. I did not agree with the Republican analysis of the conflict or the solution based on armed force, but there I was at the end of 1972, carrying the coffin of a cousin, killed on IRA active service.

Slowly but surely, the unity that existed in the early days of the Civil Rights movement began to disappear. There was the main division between those who believed in physical-force Republicanism, and those who adhered to constitutional Nationalism. It is a division that has persisted in the community, and has been a cause of bitter dispute within families and between neighbours. The death of Ranger Willie Best put in sharp focus the divisions that had opened up in Creggan. There were condemnations of the killing, and a sense of outrage that was widely felt. The use of armed force was abhorred by the majority of the people of Creggan, and now it had been visited on one of their own people, by their own people.

There was also the inescapable fact that armed force was the policy of the British Government and carried out ruthlessly by the British Army. The previous six months had seen Bloody Sunday, and a few days before Willie Best's death, a British Army sniper shot dead the unarmed, fifteen-year-old Manus Deery. A few days after the death of Willie Best, the Administrator of Creggan, Fr Martin Rooney, chaired a public meeting in St Mary's Secondary School to protest against the killing and call for an end to armed conflict. The meeting ended in uproar and vociferous support for the IRA. Fr Rooney hardly got a hearing, and was branded as an enemy of the popular struggle. This was the same Fr Rooney who, in the previous September, had sent a telegram to the then British Prime Minister, Ted Heath, calling for the withdrawal of the British Army from Creggan and pointing out that the use of CS gas was making Creggan 'a vast gas chamber'.

In spite of the bitter divisions engendered by the Troubles, it was clear that what united the Creggan community was a stronger force than those deep differences of opinion. The priests who served in Creggan throughout those turbulent years were a major factor in holding the community together, in helping their people in times of distress and mourning. This did not happen just by accident, but was a result of the strong sense of bonding between priest and people that preceded the years of mayhem. Fathers Martin Rooney, George McLaughlin and Joe Carolan, in particular, were nor only spiritual leaders in name, but men who showed tremendous qualities of leadership, courage and compassion.

Governments in London came and went in the '70s. Nondescript Secretaries of State presided over the continued military occupation of Creggan. The best hope for progress, the power-sharing executive, was brought down by violence. The Hunger Strikes brought the death of another of my generation in Creggan, Mickey Devine, and there appeared no way out of the despair and hopelessness of the continuing cycle of politically related deaths. Another generation grew up and left Creggan and has helped in the reconstruction of Derry. The unacceptably high levels of unemployment remain a challenge to all concerned about the future of Creggan and the entire city. There are hopeful and welcome signs that the war in Ireland is ending and the wounds in Creggan can be bound up in a spirit of tolerance and generosity to all. This is nothing less than Creggan and its succeeding generations deserve.


John McCool, a 15-year-old student from Dunree Gardens, was looking forward to his holidays as he made his way home from St Columb's College on 25 June 1970. By 7.OOpm, he, like many of his contemporaries, was drawn to the riots in the Bogside where attendance for young men was almost obligatory. Staying out late was a luxury not readily afforded to young McCool, so it was with some trepidation that he approached his home around 12.15am. His father's greeting was quiet and restrained; his mother was in the living room; his younger brother Kieran and sister Sinead lay sleeping on the settee and nine-year-old Bernadette and three-year-old Carol were asleep in the bedroom over the living room. John looked into the kitchen where his father Tommy was in conversation with Joe Coyle from Rathkeele Way, a colleague in the Republican movement. Tommy, a veteran Republican, had been arrested in 1957 and sentenced to 12 years for possession of firearms; he served five, an amnesty having been granted in 1962. As John looked around the kitchen, his eye took in a crate of bottles containing what could only have been petrol. Small pieces of cloth were draped around the kitchen and the cooker was on, making the kitchen very warm. No explanations were given and he was not invited to give assistance. Thinking himself fortunate to escape reprimand for his late return, he retired quietly to the living room.

At approximately 12.45am, Tommy Carlin, another Republican from Creggan Heights, called at the door and joined John's father and Joe Coyle in the kitchen. About ten minutes later there was a tremendous explosion. The survival instinct propelled John out into the front garden where all was confusion. His mother, Kieran and sister Sinead had also escaped. Thick smoke billowed from the upstairs bedroom. As neighbours tried in vain to gain access, he remembers being restrained as he tried to return, knowing Bernadette and Carol had been almost directly above the blast. Before he was sedated, he was reassured to see Bernadette being taken away in the ambulance, still alive, raising his hopes for her survival.

On recovering consciousness next morning, he was not surprised to hear that his father and Joe Coyle had died in the blast and that Tommy Carlin was seriously ill (he was to die in hospital 11 days later). He was not prepared for the news that Bernadette and Carol had also died.

Lost Lives - a comprehensive reference book which records the deaths of everyone who died as a result of the Troubles up to 1999 - describes the coroner's findings:

At the inquest the coroner said it was one of the greatest tragedies in Derry in living memory. He said during his 47 years as coroner he had never had to deal with such a tragic case, adding that exactly what had happened on the night of the fire would never be known.

The inquest jury returned a verdict of misadventure. Despite the inability to determine exactly what happened that night, it seems clear that the conditions were a recipe for disaster. A fireman at the scene had 'found the remains of a wooden crate containing the bases of bottles' and a police investigation had 'found traces of paraffin or petrol on the broken glass of two milk bottles and five mineral bottles'. The production of this evidence supports John's unequivocal admission that he had witnessed the making of petrol bombs. Open containers of petrol, in a confined space, in a small warm room, would have needed just a spark to create disaster.

The three Republicans, Tommy McCool, Joe Coyle and Tommy Carlin, have been described as being, in the period just before their deaths, 'the core of the Derry Provisional IRA'. The same source, The Provisional IRA by Eamonn Mallie, described them as having 'a commitment to defending Catholics' and of being 'poorly equipped'. The popular perception of the nightly rioting as defence of the Bogside and the absence of 'equipment' could explain the choice of the crude petrol bomb as a defensive weapon.

John has confused memories of the funeral preparations. Friends and neighbours could nor have been more thoughtful. There were practicalities. All his clothes, except those he stood up in, had been destroyed. He remembers Alex, his father's brother, taking him to Burton's outfitters and giving him his choice of suits. He picked a navy suit and suede boots. He felt compelled to visit the house and experienced feelings of disbelief when damage to Bernadette and Carol's bedroom was less than he expected. He was to discover later that they had died of smoke inhalation.

At the funeral, concerned mourners felt obliged to push him to the front when he drifted back in the crush as the cortege moved to St Mary's Church and on to the City Cemetery. Despite hints of the circumstances surrounding the disaster, the personal tragedy of the family was the uppermost concern of the community, as evidenced in the report of the Derry Journal:

Almost 1,000 people attended the funeral yesterday of Mr Thomas McCool (40) and his two daughters Bernadette (9) and Carol (3), three of the four victims of a fire tragedy in their home at 25 Dunree Gardens, Creggan Estate, on Friday night... Requiem Mass was celebrated by Rev M Rooney, Priest-in-Charge, St Mary's and Rev J Carolan officiated at the graveside. Other priests in attendance were Rev J Irwin, CC, St Mary's, Very Rev J Coulter, President of St Columb's College and Rev J Ryder, St Columb's College. Among those attending the funeral were Mr Eddie McAteer, President of the Nationalist Party, Mr John Hume MP, Mr Kevin Agnew, chairman of NICRA and Mr Eamonn McCann.

Membership of the IRA was in little doubt after the funeral; the Derry Journal reported:

Crowds lined the route as the Tricolour-draped coffin of Mr McCool left St Mary's Church after Requiem Mass on its way to the City Cemetery. Eleven members of the IRA formed a guard of honour and, at the graveside, a member of Fianna Éireann, the Republican youth movement, sounded the Last Post.

With the funeral over, Tommy's wife Josie had to cope with the loss of a husband, two children and a home, and face the task of holding the rest of her family together. Relatives were particularly supportive, but no one could accommodate all the family at one address. She was determined to have the family return to Dunree Gardens and, when refurbishment was complete, they duly returned. In spire of a good neighbourhood and good friends, the old home held too many painful memories, which even the stay of seven years could not ease. She left with her family and headed for Westland Street.

Josie did not know that John had joined the IRA until he was arrested and charged with possession of explosives in 1973. In his case, the IRA departed from its usual stance of non-recognition of the courts by advising legal defence. John spent three years in Magilligan Prison, where part of the punishment was being permitted the view of the scenic Inishowen Peninsula, just across the water in Donegal, but denied the luxury of visiting there. When he was released in 1976, he almost immediately fulfilled a dream built up over three years when he cycled the length of the Foyle shoreline of Inishowen.

A lasting impression of his day of release was his mother's tears when he emerged a free man. These were the first she had shed openly since the loss of her husband and two daughters. It was then he realised that she felt free to do so because they were tears of relief and he marvelled at the strength of the woman who had quietly coped in spite of enormous trials.

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