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Military law imposed during summer of 1970

(Marie Louise McCrory, Irish News)

It was a turning point in the Troubles, but many of the stories from the Falls Road curfew remain untold. West Belfast Correspondent Marie Louise McCrory reports on a turbulent period.

The Falls Road curfew of the summer of 1970 is one of the most noted chapters of the Troubles.

A 36-hour period between Friday July 3 and Sunday July 5 saw three men killed, a fourth injured who later died, hundreds of families evacuated from their homes and some of the worst street violence of the period.

The trouble which erupted in the lower Falls on Friday July 3 was said to have been sparked when the RUC and British army raided a house on Balkan Street at around 4.30pm.

It was reported that a rifle, 15 pistols and a sub-machine gun were found.

A crowd which had gathered outside refused to move and the army used CS gas to disperse it.

Violence ensued and more CS gas was fired. Trouble erupted and the army brought in armoured vehicles.

Crowds built barricades at various points around the lower Falls and the road was the scene of numerous street battles.

Petrol bombs were thrown at the army in Albert Street and CS gas was used in response.

A bus was hijacked to block the Raglan Street junction with Albert Street and military vehicles were stoned.

Fighting spread up the Falls Road and along its many side streets where running battles with the army ensued.

The army threw gas canisters into side streets and it was reported that a catapult was used near the Falls Baths to hurl the gas devices.

The Irish News on July 4 1970 reported that the "Falls Road and all the side streets were littered with gas canisters".

"Men, women and children were sick in the streets from the effects of the gas."

At 10.20pm as fighting continued a helicopter carrying a loud speaker flew over the area and a voice announced that a curfew was being imposed.

The voice advised that anyone who was caught out of doors would be arrested. Army military vehicles lined the Falls Road.

The area which found itself under military curfew stretched from Albert Street to the Dunville Park along the Falls Road, and down the Grosvenor Road as far as Durham Street.

Around 50 streets were affected by the move.

As many as 300 families were evacuated from the area and those who remained recalled hearing sporadic gunfire after nightfall.

Despite periods of calm there were reports of how the army continued to throw gas cylinders, some through windows were families were huddled.

Buckets and basins containing a mixture of water and vinegar sat outside front doors so that those involved in clashes with the army could wet rags to protect them against the sting of the gas.

Fighting continued throughout the night and at one point 1,000 troops swooped on the area.

It was said that political representatives, priests and members of the peace committee went from street to street trying to calm the situation. However, the army continued to fire gas canisters.

The next morning three men were dead and another was fatally wounded.

Charles O'Neill was a 36-year-old invalided ex-serviceman from Linden Street. He was mowed down by an army saracen.

It was later claimed that he had been deliberately run over.

William Burns was a 54-year-old bachelor was shot dead on the step of his home on the Falls Road.

The shooting happened two hours before the curfew and residents said he had been chatting to a neighbour.

Patrick Elliman was a 63-year-old retired boot repairer and former goalkeeper with the Antrim hurling team.

He was shot in the head at around 11pm after he went for a walk to the end of his street thinking that the trouble was over. He died a week later in hospital.

Zbigniew Uglik was a postman and amateur photographer.

The Polish national was shot as he tried to take photographs.

The curfew continued through Saturday and into Sunday when 3,000 Catholic women, on hearing reports of families not having enough to eat, marched on the lower Falls to bring food.

The Irish News from Monday July 6 reported: "Troops at barbed wire barricades were taken by surprise by the chanting, singing, yelling women.

"They marched down the Falls Road waving shopping bags, bottles of milk and loaves of bread. Some wore aprons, mothers clutched the hands of small children. Some were in their Sunday best after coming from Mass."

Many of the women stopped to hand in their gifts at a school hall.

The Legion of Mary and Knights of Malta set up an emergency food centre in Sultan Street.

Reports described how within minutes of it being open, women and children from other areas formed a long queue eager to hand over what they could donate.

The curfew was lifted at 9am on Sunday July 5.

It was following this that reports began to circulate of soldiers looting shops and houses.

Stories of verbal insults and abuse at the hands of the soldiers also began to emerge.

Residents reported that soldiers had wrecked house after house, ripping linoleum from floors, smashing doors and windows and throwing clothes around rooms.

There were also reports of soldiers smashing a crucifix and religious statues.

A centre was set up in Balkan Street to record acts of damage by soldiers.

Within two hours 150 complaints had been received.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association called for a public inquiry into the conduct of the soldiers.

British defence minister Lord Balniel later defended the action of the army stating: "I am deeply impressed by the impartial way they are carrying out an extremely difficult task."

The period was said to have marked a major turning point in the history of the Troubles.

May 8, 2005

This article appeared first in the February 2, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News