Restored letters from War of Independence reveal details of 1920 Derry battle

Newly restored letters from the Irish War of Independence have unearthed a detailed description of a battle in the city of Londonderry.

Dated July 18 1920, the correspondence notes that for several weeks civilians, backed by police, had been firing into Republican areas.

“Five or six” civilians were killed as tensions came to a head on a Saturday night before a party of IRA volunteers from the Derry City Battalion were sent to Long Tower street in the city to protect “lives and property”.

“On Monday morning shooting throughout the city became more general and at least six people killed attempting to get to work, many others were injured,” the letter reads.

As more IRA volunteer units were ordered, the letter states that “strict orders were given to protect lives of citizens irrespective of religion”.

MSPC Project
MSPC Project

The letter claims that the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who were stationed at the Diamond in the city centre, were “firing into nationalist areas without any justification”.

The mobilised IRA unit attacked and forced the police into the courthouse on Bishop Street, two RIC officers were wounded and two firearms were recovered.

On the same day, the unit took over St Columb’s College, at its former site on Bishop Street, making the building their headquarters, as it provided a “strategic position”, and remained there for several days as the fighting continued.

As the British military strengthened their position throughout the city, and an attack was planned for the college building, the IRA units were forced to evacuate.

The letter lists the names of all officers involved, many from the Derry areas of the Bogside, Long Tower, Foyle Street, Bishop Street, Lecky Road, as well as further afield, with officers from America, Omagh, England and Dublin.

MSPC Project
MSPC Project

The letter also states that “Patrick Lafferty’s premises were used during this period for storing ammunition”.

Other historic IRA records list “Paddy Lafferty” from Bishop Street in the city as a participant in the 1916 rising but it cannot be verified if this is the same person.

The Derry letters are part of the Brigade Activity Reports, launched by the Irish minister with responsibility for defence, Paul Kehoe, on Saturday, and represent the most anticipated file series within the Military Service Pension Collection.

In order to administer pension claims under the Military Service Pensions Act, 1934, committees were formed around the country of people who held rank in the IRA structure.

MSPC Project
MSPC Project

These committees were requested to provide listings of operations and activities undertaken by the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Army, during the most active years of the War of Independence (1920-1921).

The Referee and Advisory Committee relied heavily on these files to assess personal pension claims as the material offered chronologies of activities compiled by those who took part.

The Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection (MSPC) project releases the records of the Department of Defence dealing with the service of members of the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, the Hibernian Rifles, Cumann na mBan, Na Fianna Eireann and the Irish Republican Army from the period April 1916 to September 30 1923.

The release of the Brigade Activity files is the seventh release for the MSPC project, marking a new phase in the study of the Irish Revolution.