Bernadette Devlin: The Disparaged Woman of the Troubles

By Katherine Behnke

Bernadette Devlin became the youngest Member of British Parliament in 1969 at twenty-one years old. On January 31, 1972, House of Commons’ protocol did not allow Devlin to recount what she witnessed between the Irish nationalists and British paratroopers on what became known as Bloody Sunday. In frustration, she crossed the room and hit Reginald Maulding, the British Home Secretary, in the face. The aftermath Devlin encountered as a result of her actions toward Maulding highlights the gender order in Northern Ireland during the violent era from 1968 to 1998, known as the Troubles.

I recently completed an online exhibit about Bloody Sunday, the deadly civil rights march on January 30, 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland that became a turning point in the Troubles. While researching the exhibit, I discovered the lack of scholarship written exclusively on Devlin, showing the disparity between the remembrance of women and men in the Troubles. Male authors have written many of the secondary sources, and plenty of books exist either written by or about men who participated in the Troubles, such as Austin Currie and Martin McGuiness. Academics Tim Pat Coogan and Feargal Cochrane and authors Don Mullan and Douglas Murray mention Devlin when discussing the Troubles, but only a book written by Devlin herself from 1969, a thesis focused on Devlin to understand Northern Ireland during this time written by Barbara Ann Oney in 1972 and edited publications of her speeches comprise the sources which focus on her exclusively.[1] In popular culture, filmmaker, Lelia Doolan, made a 2011 film called Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey that premiered at the BFI London Film Festival with the specific goal to keep Devlin from being forgotten in Irish history.[2] Investigating this lack of scholarship on Devlin highlights the need to include her in the history of the Troubles rather than finding excuses, such as her critical statements, radical actions or lapses in her memory, as justifications to exclude her.

Bernadette Devlin and Bloody Sunday  

Growing in prominence during the Troubles of Northern Ireland, Devlin’s political career began at a young age. Nationalist Catholics and unionist Protestants disagreed over whether Northern Ireland should unite with the Republic of Ireland or remain a part of the United Kingdom.[3] After building a presence as part of the civil rights movement, Devlin won the election to become the Member of Parliament for Mid-Ulster in 1969. Her unionist critics, who called her “Castro in a miniskirt,” began to grow in number as she sharply criticized anyone who discriminated against the nationalists in Northern Ireland, including the police and the British parliamentary elite.[4] Also, by 1969, Devlin had already written a book about her life thus far called The Price of My Soul to explain how Northern Ireland’s economic, social and political problems created the public’s fascination with Bernadette Devlin.[5] Although she may not have enjoyed living in the public eye, her story is neglected by scholars.

Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, highlights how the press dealt with Devlin. What began as a civil rights march against internment, the arrest of suspected members of paramilitary groups without a trial, became deadly after the British soldiers and nationalist protestors met in the streets of Derry.[6] Although the Stormont government had banned public processions, nationalist marchers met anyway, and shooting began after the British Parachute Regiment tried to block off the city centre.[7] In total, fourteen men died, and the debate over who started the shooting lasted for decades.[8] Devlin attracted the attention of the press after she hit the British Home Secretary in the face at Westminster the next day.[9] Afterwards, the press asked her whether her emotions played a role in her decision to hit Maulding. Devlin responded with, “It wasn’t an emotional reaction. It was quite coldly and calmly done.”[10] Instead of focusing on the events Devlin saw on Bloody Sunday that led her to her reaction to Maudling, the press used her actions to criticize her. Their criticism aligns with political scientist Christine Sylvester’s argument that historically women have not been seen as soldiers because they are not emotionally prepared.[11]

Devlin’s male counterparts did not experience the same level of criticism from the press about their emotions. Martin McGuinness, another controversial figure of the Troubles at this time due to his membership in the Provisional Irish Republican Army, received the blame for firing the first shot at Bloody Sunday.[12] Although he may not have liked what the authors wrote, McGuinness’s story received attention, such as Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston’s Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government.[13] McGuinness received criticism for his involvement in the Troubles, but his emotions were never mentioned as motivation for his actions. Therefore, this brief comparison gives insight into the gender bias Devlin received.

Devlin’s memory has come into question many times over the years. Austin Currie, who rose in the civil rights movement with Devlin, wrote his autobiography in 2004.[14] Currie disagreed with Devlin’s account of a civil rights march near Coalisland on August 24, 1968. Devlin claimed in her 1969 book that men stopped at pubs along the march’s route, and they became very drunk.[15] However, Currie stated that only one bar existed on the route, and his friend, who marched with Currie that day, claimed the pub was closed when he tried to use the restroom there.[16] In this way, Currie became skeptical of Devlin’s presence at the march even though he wrote decades after the Troubles while Devlin wrote her book in 1969.

In his book, Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry, Douglas Murray, an author and political journalist, recounts what happened on Bloody Sunday and the Saville Inquiry. While he uses witness statements, tribunal sittings and Lord Saville’s final report, he does not cite individual parts in his book, but rather, he lists the sources used in each chapter at the end of the book. Therefore, he provides valuable information, but Murray does not include specific citations. He directs his readers to go to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry website to find all the evidence he uses in this book. He claims that on January 31, 1972 in Parliament Devlin recalled a Tory Member of Parliament hitting her, resulting in another Member of Parliament hitting the Tory, and that as she left she observed “a pile of MPs literally boxing on the floor of the House.”[17] Murray does not identify a source for Devlin’s account. However, he then goes on to cite Hansard, the official record of the House, as having a different account of the day. It has different Members of Parliament stating their opinions either in support or opposition to Devlin hitting Maulding. Hansard contains no account of further fighting.[18] While Murray references Hansard, his claims lack validity due to his absence of citations.

At the Saville Inquiry, the Counsel questioned Devlin’s memory again. Due to decades passing between Bloody Sunday and the Saville Inquiry, many witnesses who testified also had trouble remembering events.[19] To her credit, Devlin conceded in her testimony that she had an “unreliable memory.”[20] Multiple Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) organizers and Derry civilians recalled in their testimonies of seeing Devlin at the march.[21] When the Inquiry brought up a Times interview from January 31, 1972 that quoted Devlin discussing an eight-year-old boy being shot in the back and a film clip from the same day of her stating that a young girl had also been shot in the back, Devlin could not justify her false claims.[22] Therefore, these accounts saw Devlin stretching the truth based off claims she heard from other people present on January 30 in order to show the nationalist protestors were the victims of the day. Lord Saville ultimately concluded that the British soldiers fired unprovoked into the crowd of protestors.[23] While her recollection of events may prove problematic, Devlin’s lapses in memory do not serve as an excuse for excluding her from the Troubles in Northern Ireland narrative. Her honesty in her memory failures should be admired, especially when Devlin was asked to remember events from decades earlier.

In conclusion, Bernadette Devlin deserves recognition for her role in Northern Ireland. Critics and scholars appear to use her passion about the presence of British soldiers in Northern Ireland, her radical actions and her lapses in memory of past events as justification for excluding her contributions to the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Devlin had many flaws, but an account of her life should not be dismissed from history because her actions as a woman may seem radical to some in society. Devlin played a critical role in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and scholars need to write about Devlin, to follow filmmaker Lelia Doolan’s lead, in order to preserve Devlin’s contribution to the history of the Troubles. From a young age, Devlin became dedicated to making Northern Ireland a better country, and her life has been full of events during and after the Troubles that require further analysis.

Notes

[1] Barbara Ann Oney, “Bernadette Devlin as a Communicator for Social Change within Northern Ireland” (master’s thesis, Ohio State University, 1972), 10.

[2] Maggie O’Kane, “A new film asks ‘where is Bernadette Devlin,’” The Guardian, last modified October 14, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2011/oct/15/bernadette-devlin-london-film-festival.

[3] Feargal Cochrane, Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 4-5.

[4] Cochrane, Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace, 42.

[5] Bernadette Devlin, The Price of My Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), vii.

[6] Cochrane, Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace, 59.

[7] Douglas Murray, Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry (London: Biteback Publishing, 2011), 30.

[8] Don Mullan, Bloody Sunday: Massacre in Northern Ireland-The Eyewitness Accounts (Niwot: Robert Rinehart Publishers, 1997), picture and BBC, “Bloody Sunday in maps,” BBC News, last modified March 17, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/8572763.stm.

[9] Cochrane, Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace, 42.

[10] BBC. “Bernadette Devlin attacks British Home Secretary,” last modified January 27, 2012, accessed November 20, 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nm166.

[11] Christine Sylvester, War as Experience: Contributions from international relations and feminist analysis (New York: Routledge, 2013), 38.

[12] Murray, Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry, 241.

[13] Ibid., 232.

[14] Ibid., 42.

[15] Devlin, The Price of My Soul, 92-3.

[16] Austin Currie, All Hell Will Break Loose, (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2004), 104-5.

[17] Murray, Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry, 75.

[18] Ibid., 76.

[19] Murray, Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry, 240.

[20] Ibid., 86.

[21] Murray, Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry, 78-9.

[22] Ibid., 86-9.

[23] Ibid., 303.

 

Bibliography

Amazon. “Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry.” https://www.amazon.com/Bloody-Sunday-Truths-Saville-Inquiry/dp/1849541493.

BBC. “Bernadette Devlin attacks British Home Secretary.” BBC One. Last modified January 27, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nm166.

BBC. “Bloody Sunday in maps.” BBC News. Last modified March 17, 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/8572763.stm.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry. http://www.bloody-sunday-inquiry.org.uk.

Cochrane, Feargal. Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Currie, Austin. All Hell Will Break Loose. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2004.

Devlin, Bernadette. The Price of My Soul. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Goodreads. “The Price of my Soul.” Goodreads Inc. Last modified 2018. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1848819.The_Price_of_my_Soul.

Mullan, Don. Bloody Sunday: Massacre in Northern Ireland-The Eyewitness Accounts. Niwot: Robert Rinehart Publishers, 1997.

Murray, Douglas. Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry. London: Biteback Publishing, 2011.

O’Kane, Maggie. “A new films asks ‘where is Bernadette Devlin.’” The Guardian. Last modified October 14, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2011/oct/15/bernadette-devlin-london-film-festival.

Oney, Barbara Ann. “Bernadette Devlin as a Communicator for Social Change within Northern Ireland.” Master’s thesis, Ohio State University, 1972.

Publishers Weekly. “The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal, 1966-1995 and the Search for Peace.” PW. https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-57098-092-3.

Sylvester, Christine. War as Experience: Contributions from international relations and feminist analysis. New York: Routledge, 2013.

University of Kent. “Professor Feargal Cochrane.” Last modified September 11, 2017. https://www.kent.ac.uk/politics/staff/canterbury/cochrane.html.

Wikipedia. “Don Mullan.” Last modified December 23, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Mullan.

Katherine Behnke is a master’s student at Cleveland State University.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s