Londonderry’s ‘Protestant exodus’: when they burned the church hall, we knew we had to move

Barricades erected during rioting in Londonderry in the 1960s
Barricades erected during rioting in Londonderry in the 1960s

Protestants who fled violence in Londonderry at the start of the 1970s share their stories with NIALL DEENEY

After being labelled an ‘Orange b******’ in the street by a man she didn’t know, the burning down of a Protestant church hall was the last straw for Doris Carruthers.

The burnt out Malborough Hall. Pictures supplied by the Bob Harte Memorial Trust and members of the North West Cultural Partnership

The burnt out Malborough Hall. Pictures supplied by the Bob Harte Memorial Trust and members of the North West Cultural Partnership

In the late 1960s, at the age of 29, she decided she was no longer safe in her family home in the predominantly Catholic cityside of Londonderry.

There is no doubt in her mind why she decided to uproot her young family and cross the River Foyle for the relative safety of the Waterside.

“It was fear, pure fear,” she said.

She wasn’t alone. Thousands of Protestants fled the cityside of Londonderry after the outbreak of the Troubles.

Between 1971 and 1981, the Protestant population on the west bank of the Foyle fell from 8,459 to just 2,874, according to census figures.

Multiple studies, documentaries, news articles and academic reports have put what has come to be known as Londonderry’s ‘Protestant exodus’ down to a feeling of intimidation and fear.

However, a new report commissioned by the Pat Finucane Centre was published just over a week ago. It found that while “direct intimidation” did happen and had a “major” impact on those subjected to it, it was not the “principal cause” of the ‘migration’.

The News Letter has, in the week since the report was published, spoken to a number of Londonderry Protestants willing to share their experiences of life in the cityside during the troubled time when most decided to leave their homes.

Now aged in her 70s, Doris Carruthers said she was simply confused how the authors could have come to that conclusion when it was so different to her own experience. Others have responded to the report’s publication less kindly.

Mrs Carruthers described how, in the summer of 1969, she returned from a family holiday in Portrush with her husband, Noel, and their three-year-old daughter to find the streets around her home barricaded and strewn “ankle deep” with the debris of a full-scale riot.

“It was like a war zone,” she said.

“It was in August 1969, the 13th, and I was listening to the news in the morning and they said Rosemount Barracks had been besieged. I knew we had to get back home because our house was there. All I could describe it as was a war zone.

“The boys in control of the barricades weren’t going to let us in, only one elderly man said we lived there.

“There were barricades, and off Creggan Road there was a bus and it was full – I mean full – of petrol bombs. These were makeshift barricades, out of stones, old bits of wood, anything they could find. The place was covered in stones and bits of wood, anything they could throw. It was up to your ankles.”

That period of intense rioting lasted days, and became a frequent occurence, she said.

“We had to live with the back windows boarded because Jeanette was a young child in the back bedroom. We had the wire cages on the front of the house. We had to basically barricade ourselves into the house.”

She acknowledges that life for all of her neighbours, whom she described as having been “caught in the crossfire”, wasn’t particularly pleasant during that time, but what set her apart was the fact that she was a Protestant.

“Behind us was a church hall. It was owned by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, known as the Malborough Hall. It’s not there any more. They burned that hall. We took that as a sign.

“I had walked up the street and been called an Orange ‘b’. I didn’t know who it was that was saying it to me, but he knew me. People knew I was a Protestant.”

She added: “My husband still wasn’t anxious to move. It was the house he was reared in. But I said, no, I’m not staying. We had to go. We had to.

“You can’t stay, not with a youngster and a husband with a heart complaint. He eventually gave in. He wasn’t happy about it but he had to give in.

“When someone I didn’t know was marking me out as a Protestant, I knew we had to go.”

She applied to the Londonderry Development Commission for a new home, but the Carruthers family had to wait until 1971 before a house became available in the newly constructed estate of Newbuildings in the Waterside.

In the intervening time, there was a succession of violent incidents near their house.

“They blew up the community centre one night, and the shooting kept going on all the time,” she said.

“They tried to burn the police dogs one time. They put petrol on the dogs and tried to burn them. There’s something about that that gives you a funny feeling.

“I went down and applied for a new house. I didn’t even tell my husband. I went to the Londonderry Development Commission. After a while they sent a woman up and Noel was up putting on cages on the windows, and she said ‘you would need to put something on that would stop bullets’. She knew what we were going through, but it still wasn’t until July 1971 that we finally got out.

“It was August that same year, 1971, that the big move came. You had people getting housed wherever they could. A lot of them came here (Newbuildings).

“You had a lot of people who had been born and reared in them houses, they were city people, and it took a long time for them to get used to it.

“They never got over that move, after being landed into what I would class in those days as a country area.

“Everything had been in walking distance, and then everything changed. Some of them didn’t even get their furniture out.”

She added: “I moved out to get peace to live. That’s all I wanted.”