Recently revived for the Radical Film Network’s ’68 Festival, Michael Fanning’s fascinating documentary The Day the Troubles Began explores the social and political history surrounding the civil rights march that took place in Derry on the 5th October, 1968. Despite being only an hour long, the documentary has the range and depth of a feature-length film. We hear from various political activists who were directly involved in the march – including Eamonn McCann and Ivan Cooper – but also Tom Hayden, the American civil rights activist, and Alain Geismar, a leading figure in the Parisian student riots of May 1968.
Indeed, far from being merely about a local march in a small city in Northern Ireland, the documentary places the 5th October within the much wider context of world politics in the 1960s, a tumultuous period dominated by the Vietnam war, Martin Luther King Jr., and the ever present threat of nuclear apocalypse, ‘a time of blood’ as Tom Hayden puts it. Through Fanning’s skillful direction, the civil rights march in Derry moves from the parochial into the international, a political movement that deserves to be considered alongside other radical changes taking place at that time.
At the heart of the film, however, is the fight to reform the political system in Northern Ireland in the ‘60s. Since 1921, when the region was partitioned, the Unionist/ Protestant community had held a monopoly on power, to the detriment of many Catholics and nationalists who were often excluded from jobs, educational opportunities and better housing. Inspired by the methods of civil rights activists in America, some in Northern Ireland were beginning to adopt non-violent tactics themselves as a protest against the status quo, including various marches, mass sit-downs, and even in one case, barricading a road with a caravan.
While the march on the 5th October was intended to be peaceful though, it was brutally suppressed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary who blocked the protestors into Duke Street and subjected them to water cannon and baton charges, little less than a ‘punishment operation’ as Eamonn McCann puts it. ‘You could feel the hatred’, Bernadette McAliskey says, ‘the police hated us.’ The march had unleashed deep tensions in the region and ‘unmasked the authoritarian regime of Northern Ireland’, as Dr Simon Prince phrases it.
The consensus is that after the 5th October, things changed rapidly in Northern Ireland, but not in the way that the organizers of the march had hoped. As the title of the film suggests, the 5th October 1968 can be taken as the starting point of the dark and violent period of Irish/ British history known as the ‘Troubles.’ As a new generation has been born and grown up in a world that is post Good Friday Agreement, films like Fanning’s are essential if we are to truly understand the Troubles properly. Highly recommended, and the documentary can easily be found on YouTube.