The slogan circled the Earth, a hundred times, a thousand times, at 33 revolutions per minute. It is so well packaged that it still serves today as a rallying cry for all committed artists: “ This machine kills fascists “. Four words written in black marker on a fragile wooden guitar by folk-singer Woody Guthrie in 1941.
the protest singer American was right: it’s more powerful than it seems, a song. It circulates, it interferes, it flows, from one generation to the next, from one social and political reality to another. Guthrie, Dylan, Joan Baez, Bob Marley: ambassadors of peace in their own way; politicians without party or mandate, but endowed with real firepower.
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Paul David Hewson, later known as Bono, was born in 1960. He was 12 when the island of Ireland, torn as ever, suffered one of its worst tragedies on Sunday January 30, 1972. In the city of Derry, in the north-west of Northern Ireland attached to the United Kingdom since 1921, a march for peace organized in the Catholic district of Bogside turned into a bloodbath, British soldiers having opened fire, without warning and from the roofs of buildings, on a convoy of peaceful and unarmed walkers. Fourteen dead. Seven of them were under 19 years old.
Chorus of a generation
As a teenager, Paul David Hewson devoured the records of Guthrie, Dylan and Joan Baez, even if you don’t necessarily hear them when you listen to the first cold and superbly sharp records of U2, the very beautiful ones. Boy (1980) and october (1981) with above all romantic and poetic texts… Bono seems to have kept his own manifesto, his “This Guitar Kills Fascists” for the next album, U2’s third: The Angry Anthem Sunday Bloody Sunday, a sacred song of blood and tears, will finally appear in 1983 on an LP with a no less martial title, War.
And then suddenly everything changes: a still confidential formation, loved only by fans of English new wave with a fridge trend, U2 becomes in a few weeks the group of a whole generation. His flagship song is both a hit that airs on RTL, a pop chorus that you hum without thinking about it, and a text that appeals to teenagers in the midst of political construction. In the courses of colleges and high schools, in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Greece, everywhere in reality, we discover the absolute horror that was the “Bloody Sunday” of January 1972. “I can’t believe the news today. Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away…”
In Derry, on Rossville Street, the same street where, fifty years ago to the day, the crowd was trapped by shooters – English paratroopers posted on the roofs of adjacent buildings – a small museum financed and maintained since 2017 by families of Bogside Catholic Republicans tells the tragic story of that cursed Sunday. The single-storey museum is located exactly where the paratroopers fired the highest number of casualties. Tourist guides mistakenly say that the Catholic enclave of Bogside is in the “suburb” of Derry: in reality, the city is not very big, and this bordering district is less than four hundred meters on foot, below , of the historic citadel, a long Protestant and Loyalist stronghold.
On January 30, 1972, whole families gathered at the pub for a few beers and a meal that we imagine to be brief. The meeting is given at 2 p.m., at the exit of the citadel. Thirty minutes later, there are more than 10,000 walkers of all ages who answered the call of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association (NICRA), created in 1968 on the model of the movement of Martin Luther King and black American pacifists.
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Among the demands of the march, the possibility for a Northern Irish Catholic family to access housing and employment under the same conditions as their Protestant compatriots. NICRA is also calling for an end to the Internment Act, which since 1971 has permitted the arrest without cause, detention without evidence, and imprisonment without trial of alleged Republican agitators.
Thirty years of civil war
The convoy sets off. On the route announced to the authorities, barricades erected by the army force the huge crowd to branch off. There she is moving towards the wide Rossville Street, in the middle of buildings and social housing. The IRA (Irish Republican Army) remained outside the procession, the weapon at the foot: it gave its word to the organizers.
A few clashes break out, stone throwing, insults and jeers. The British soldiers retaliate in the classic way, water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets. The tension is mounting, but no one can imagine that everything will soon change… At 4:07 p.m., as if taken by panic, the English major Ted Loden authorizes a few soldiers to fire directly into the crowd to disperse it. Did they feel directly threatened? The investigation, years later, will prove that this was not the case… Finally, twenty soldiers start shooting for several minutes. More than a hundred impacts of assault rifles will be found in the walls and on the asphalt. In an instant, the fragile peace process that had begun timidly between Loyalists and Republicans is reduced to dust. The civil war will flare up even more – and it will last thirty terrible years. In 1972 alone, 500 people will be killed in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
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The stories, the photos, the testimonies presented on the walls of the Rossville Street museum would bring tears to the most hermetic. In a window, a few chilling relics: a shoe lost during the panic, a shirt and a sweater with holes in them from bullet holes. Since the sordid event, the inhabitants of these few charmless streets have baptized their neighborhood Free Derry. A little higher up in the citadel, the families loyal to the English crown persisted in calling their city Londonderry. Irreconcilable divorce. A scar that will never quite heal.
Cry of rage
The main street of the Bogside has not changed since 1972: on Rossville Street, large painted walls, the famous murals, suggest another way to travel through time and painful memories. The frescoes which pay homage to the heroes of the fight for the independence of Northern Ireland stand alongside a huge dove of peace, a poignant portrait of the Irish nationalist Bobby Sands who died in prison in 1981 and representations of anonymous citizens standing proudly facing to armored vehicles. Art as a bandage. A little vain no doubt, but these murals regularly renovated, the inhabitants of the Bogside hold it like the apple of their eyes.
But let’s go back to December 1982. While they were in the studio in Dublin recording their long-awaited third album, the song Sunday Bloody Sunday imposes itself on Bono and The Edge, his guitarist, like a kind of cry of rage that they can no longer stifle. They have had the song in their repertoire for several years; they backed off for a long time, not quite ready to put this trauma on tape, but the atmosphere in the studio was explosive during the sessions of War (tensions between the musicians, pressure from the record company, which demands a hit), they decide to launch themselves, between exorcism and group therapy.
We know the rest: a phenomenal sound, feline drums and electric guitar unstoppably intertwined, and above, proud and luminous, this song of preacher incandescent which will henceforth be worth to Bono to be portrayed, by his admirers as by his detractors, as the perfect pop messiah for the ending century.
The other “Blood Sunday”
Seizing the risk of appearing as an overly politicized group (a bad idea for record sales?), the members of U2 will explain, during interviews carried out at the release of the album, that the text of Sunday Bloody Sunday should not be “overinterpreted”, that it is no more a rallying cry than a call to war – quite the contrary. The group will also say that they wanted to evoke “the other Bloody Sunday”, this terrible Sunday of 1920 which left, in Dublin, 30 people on the floor on both sides of the barricades, among Protestants and Catholics.
For Bono and his family, it’s out of the question to see Sunday Bloody Sunday escape them. It’s a message song and of course they assume it. But this message cannot be simplified – “essentialized”, as we would say today. The enemy is not the English, the Protestant, the Loyalist. The enemy is hatred itself. Woody Guthrie did not say anything else…