The tale of Bernadette Devlin

If my name doesn’t make it obvious enough, I am absurdly Irish.

More specifically, my folks are from Northern Ireland. If you know anything about the state of affairs over there, you’d know that the North is a separate country from the Republic of Ireland, one that is controlled by the United Kingdom. In the last half century, the country has been plagued with violent tensions between the dominant Protestant-unionist population and the minority Catholic-republican population.

My family was, and still is, part of the minority Catholic-republican population in the North. Until recently, being Catholic meant being barred from housing, jobs, the ability to vote and really the ability to take ownership of your life. Tensions boiled between people like my family, who wanted a united Ireland and basic civil rights, and Protestants, who wanted to maintain control of the region. Because of this strife, extreme violence began in the early 1970s. Although the peak of the Troubles simmered in the late 1990s, the wounds caused by the pseudo-civil war have never healed.

I believe that my family’s long history of oppression struck deep in my bones a sense of belonging with folks who are living on the margins. When the going gets tough, I almost always call upon my heritage to give me strength, because in all honesty, there is nothing that I am more proud of.

The results of this presidential election have shook me to my very core, and for the first time in my life, I found myself sincerely terrified for the future. Like any good Irish girl would do, I said a few Hail Mary’s and asked my ancestors above what I should do. And time and time again, I thought of one of my ultimate heroines, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.

In 1969, Devlin, at age 22, was the youngest member ever elected to the British Westminster Parliament as a Catholic-Republican socialist. On Bloody Sunday, 13 unarmed peaceful marchers asking for Republican civil rights were shot and killed and 15 were brutally injured by British military personnel. Having witnessed the horror at Bloody Sunday, Devlin took the floor at the House of Commons later that day and went on to slap Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary in the Conservative government, across the face when he stated that the paratroopers had responded in self-defense.

I know, nasty women, I want to be her, too.

Understandably, Bernadette became a national hero for Republican populations in Northern Ireland and even gained massive followings amongst Irish-American populations in the United States. Irish folks living in Boston even went so far as to grant her an honorary key to their city.

Believe it or not, she gets even cooler. In large part, Irish-American populations nationwide were actively resisting the American civil rights movement. Because of this, Devlin refused to accept the key, and instead, symbolically gave it to members of The Black Panthers. At a time when Irish folks were widely seen as oppressive members of the police by minority populations in the United States, it was astonishing for a young Irish woman to soundly rebuke Irish Americans for their participation in racism.

Devlin’s actions are ones to be modeled in light of the ever-present racism that seems to have resurfaced in ugly ways post-election. For one, Devlin was not afraid to look inward and criticize “her people” when their actions proved hypocritical and actively hateful. And even more importantly, she recognized her own struggle of oppression and used her experiences to empathize with folks who were hurting too.

As a nation of immigrants, chances are that most folks in this country had family members who were marginalized in way or another. I challenge everyone reading to live Bernadette’s example, and see their history’s struggles in the faces of all people.