White handkerchief and a Derry play tell Bloody Sunday story

Drama about those who died when soldiers opened fire on protesters will premiere on 50th anniversary

For almost 50 years, the bloodstained white handkerchief held aloft by Father Edward Daly as he tried to save the life of a fatally wounded teenager on Bloody Sunday has been kept safe, first by the boy’s family and more recently at a local museum.

On Wednesday, the handkerchief was back in the hands of Kay Duddy, whose brother Jackie was one of 13 unarmed people shot dead by British troops in a civil rights protest in the Northern Ireland city. A 14th man later died of his injuries.

Duddy, 75, was at Derry’s Playhouse to promote a new play that will premiere on 30 January, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The White Handkerchief, telling the stories of those who died, will also be streamed to a global audience.

“The hanky was returned to us with Jackie’s clothes after he died. I carried it many years with me after my daddy passed away,” she said.

“Then one day a young thug tried to snatch my handbag, and all I could think of was the hanky being lost forever. So I passed it over to the Museum of Free Derry for safekeeping.”

Julieann Campbell, the niece of Jackie Duddy, in the Museum of Free Derry beside the white handkerchief in 2019.
Julieann Campbell, the niece of Jackie Duddy, in the Museum of Free Derry beside the white handkerchief in 2019. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

The play was “an elegy, a lament for lives lost” incorporating music and lyrics, which help “deliver a sense of melancholy and tragedy”, said Liam Campbell, its author.

At its heart was a love story, he added. “The lens through which the events unfold is William McKinney, who was engaged to be married, he had his whole life in front of him.

“But it’s a celebration of all those whose lives were lost. We meet them early in the play as they gather for the march, and we sense the jovial atmosphere. What’s missing is any sense of dread.”

The production features a local cast. Director Kieran Griffiths formed a music theatre company at the Derry Playhouse to provide conservatoire-level training to 12 local people in their teens and twenties. All will be part of The White Handkerchief’s ensemble, with four taking principal roles.

The play will be staged at the Guildhall, the original destination of the 1973 civil rights march. “They were turned away, to their demise. So it’s very fitting that we’ll be performing in that very building,” said Griffiths.

About 15,000 people took part in the civil rights march through the Bogside area of Derry at the height of the Troubles. They were protesting over a new law allowing people to be imprisoned without trial.

Army barricades blocked the marchers’ intended route, and soldiers from the Parachute Regiment moved in to make arrests. Protesters threw stones and rubble, and the soldiers opened fire, using live rounds.

The Saville inquiry, which spent 12 years investigating the events of Bloody Sunday, concluded in 2010 that none of the dead posed a threat. David Cameron, then prime minister, said the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”. No soldiers have faced trial.

“Jackie was 17 years old, he just went for the craic. He was 100% innocent when he was shot,” said Duddy.

“The person that shot Jackie knows he shot him. It’s up to him now to hold his hands up. That’s my dream. I’ve been carrying this around for the last 50 years and I’m getting tired now.

“There’s been too much suffering on all sides. So hopefully, maybe just maybe, whoever it was will wake up one day and say I can’t carry this any longer. Jackie’s been buried for the last 50 years but I would like to lay him to rest.”


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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