Streaming the Civil Rights Movement through RTÉ Archives
RTÉ Archives has contributed over 1,000 items of content to EUscreen. As well as contributing video, audio and images across a range of topics, RTÉ Archives has also curated two special exhibitions focusing on television and radio coverage of events in Northern Ireland in the late sixties. Recently published on the EUscreen portal is an exhibition dealing with the issue of civil rights in Northern Ireland. This exhibition represents a unique record of this important time in Northern Irish history and provides a narrative of events as they occurred. A further exhibition, soon to be launched on EUscreen, entitled ‘Northern Ireland 1969’ examines in further detail the troubles that ensued following the civil rights campaign. Publishing these exhibitions on EUscreen affords RTÉ Archives the opportunity to bring these valuable audio-visual records to a wider, international audience.
(Civil Rights March, Newry, © RTÉ Stills Library 0122/073)
The civil rights movement in Northern Ireland involved political and social activists seeking: reform of public housing allocation; a ‘one man, one vote’ electoral system; fair employment; and restructuring of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Northern Ireland had a divided population with two-thirds Protestant and one-third Catholic and it was the minority that felt the brunt of the discrimination. Public housing was granted by local government authorities, and there was much evidence of discrimination against the Catholic population by local councils. Prior to 1969, elections were not held on a ‘one person, one vote’ basis and the practice of ‘gerrymandering’ was commonly used to secure unionist majorities on local councils and gain political advantage.
Demonstrations and marches demanding civil rights began to take place in Northern Ireland in 1968. These events were often led by a new generation of young individuals who had been able to avail of free education under the 1949 Education Act. The civil rights protestors in Northern Ireland were influenced by the television pictures they saw of African-American protests and student unrest in Europe. The protest song ‘We Shall Overcome’ which had been synonymous with the African-American struggle was soon heard at demonstrations across Northern Ireland.
When RTÉ cameraman, Gay O’Brien, filmed RUC officers baton-charging a civil rights demonstration on 5 October 1968, these images were broadcast around the world. The Northern Ireland civil rights movement was now international news. The events that took place on this day are often cited as the start of ‘The Troubles’. RTÉ now found itself challenged with covering the unfolding events across the border.
(Notice Publicising Civil Rights March in Derry, © RTÉ Stills Library 2142/022)
This exhibition contains television and radio coverage of some of the main events of the civil rights movement in 1968/69. Beginning with the Caledon protest in June 1968, when Austin Currie and others occupied a house in protest at the unfair allocation of housing. It also includes the civil rights demonstration in August when 2,000 protestors marched from Coalisland to Dungannon. Probably the most famous footage from this period is of the RUC baton charging protestors in Derry on 5 October. Other events featured are: the student protest in Belfast on 9 October; the establishment of the ‘People’s Democracy’ group; interventions from the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, and the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson; Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill’s appeal for an end to disorder; and the establishment of the Cameron Commission to investigate the causes of the unrest across the north.
These radio and television reports record the views of the protestors and the anti-protestors. There are interviews with established politicians such as Ian Paisley, Terence O’Neill and Eddie McAteer, and emerging politicians like Bernadette Devlin, John Hume and Austin Currie. These reports chart the civil rights campaign and the increase in sectarian violence during this time in Northern Ireland history.
(Civil Rights Activist Bernadette Devlin is filmed for RTÉ programme 'Féach', 1969, © RTÉ Stills Library 2143/001)
RTÉ Archives has made over 80 TV and radio clips for this period available through the online platforms of RTÉ Archives and EUscreen. The exhibition provides an audio-visual record of the struggle for civil rights and offers supplementary evidence for those interested in researching and writing about this particular period in Northern Ireland.
To discover more from the RTÉ Archives, visit www.rte.ie/archives
And follow us on Twitter @RTEArchives
Colm Talbot works as a content provider at RTÉ Archives for EUscreen.
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