The history of the Bogside has been characterised by the relationship between two communities – one within the walls, safe, secure and powerful; one without, powerless, dispossessed and oppressed.
Early map showing the River Foyle flowing around the island of Derry and creating the Bog to the west of the walled city.
The area was originally underwater. The Foyle flowed round the island of Derry, and was first settled as the river diverted. It dried out into marshland: hence the name Bogside. The first known reference to it by name came in a report from Sir Henry Docwra, the commander of an English force who arrived in Derry in 1600.
The first recorded settlers in the Bogside were 61 “British families” listed in a 1622 survey. This survey would have ignored any Irish inhabitants. Literally, they didn’t count.
From the beginning, the relationship between the Bogside and the walled city was antagonistic. When the English settlement was attacked and destroyed by Donegal chieftain Cahir O’Doherty in 1608, the attackers came through the bog. During the siege of 1688-89, many of the attacking forces were based in what is now the Bogside, Brandywell and Creggan – the area that was to become Free Derry.
The influx of migrants throughout the 18th century created a significant Catholic population in Derry. Because Catholics were forbidden from living within the walls most settled in the Bogside. The steady growth of the Catholic population was reflected in the construction of the city’s first Catholic church, Long Tower (1784), and St Eugene’s Cathedral (1851).
After partition, the Unionist Party set about creating “a Protestant state for a Protestant people” – built on a “foundation of sectarian discrimination, biased administration and a barrage of totalitarian legislation, which both protected unionism and instilled a deep sense of social injustice in the non-unionist population.” (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, 1978.)
Nationalist Derry settled into a resigned political routine that was to last into the 1960s. Almost all non-unionist councillors and MPs came from the Nationalist Party. Fully supported by the Catholic Church, it was said that Nationalists were not so much elected as anointed.