An unsung hero of American poetry, Josh Billings, gave us one of the wisest lines in the history of creative writing, “But the wheel that squeaks the loudest, is the one that gets the grease”.
A true statement when it comes to our local history. Since 1969, many people have given their perspectives on our troubled past. Politicians, public figures, journalists, and anyone willing to put themselves forward were listened to.
With 2022 being the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I look at that day and the preceding years. Most specifically, the Free Derry period between 1969-1972. Many books, documentaries, and podcasts discuss this era. I noticed that a constant and influential presence from that era is seldom mentioned, The Derry Unit of The Order of Malta Ambulance Corps, or ‘The Knights of Malta’.
Before the violence engulfed the streets, their innocent tasks involved providing first aid cover at mass for older people who felt unwell during the service, football matches, fairs, and competing in first aid demonstrations and competitions. Then suddenly, they were thrown into an active warzone with live ammunition.
The Knights of Malta ran a robust healthcare network in the community, primarily of teenage first aiders, young doctors, and nurses. During the three days of The Battle of The Bogside, they treated over one thousand people in makeshift first-aid posts at the Bogside Inn and Candy Corner, an old sweetshop at the foot of Creggan. Around forty-first aiders with limited medical supplies held out longer than the RUC!
Going to local hospitals could mean immediate arrest and later internment for those involved in and injured in rioting. The Order of Malta would take casualties to hospitals in nearby Donegal to avoid arrest. The Order of Malta treated everyone, including Free Derry civilians, IRA, British Army, and RUC. No difference was made at any point.
To see the impact of the Order of Malta at that time, one must examine pictures of Bloody Sunday. There are pictures of them wearing white coats or officer-type uniforms, epitomising the spirit of Christian charity by putting themselves on the line to render aid to those who were wounded or killed and arranging for ambulances to come to the Bogside that day. Most of them were between seventeen and twenty-one years of age. In short, they played a significant role that few people have considered.
Why is this? You may ask. None of them wrote a biography, none of them put themselves forward to the media, and nobody has studied them in great depth. If they are not heroes, then I don’t know who are.
Surely it must be their turn to be honoured.