Bernadette Devlin

An Irish Phenomenon

James G Brennan
Literary Impulse
Published in
8 min readApr 29, 2023


Photo: Telesur.

It’s twenty five years after the Good Friday Agreement and recently celebrated by those who engineered it. Arms have been laid to rest and paramilitary murders have largely stopped; it’s certainly an achievement. However, bickering politicians interested in their own agendas, and now corporations, are not paving the way to unity. Here is an Irish Icon’s story for civil rights and true unity.

To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, these were my means. — Theobald Wolfe Tone.

High heeled boots and mini skirt, fashion in the late 60s, belonged to articulate sneering defiance with the raised fist of a young Bernadette Devlin. An anti-establishment, civil rights activist icon, sent her to Westminster as the youngest woman MP, holding the title for 46 years in April 1969, regarded as a phenomenon. Even Muhamad Ali had to meet this firey kindred spirit for dinner when he came to fight in Dublin 1972. Nine years later, after re-election, an American tour, unjust imprisonment, various civil rights campaigns and elections, Bernadette survived an assassination attempt… Now aged 75, she is still fighting for immigrants, travellers, and those with learning difficulties civil rights.

Excitement followed this fiery spirited young woman in our home whenever she was on TV, all be it years later in documentaries when we were auld enough to understand her Irish spirit a wee bit. Our dad let out a “wu-hoo!” and rightly so, at Bernadette Devlin’s phenomenal achievements.

Josephine Bernadette Devlin was born and raised in Cookstown, County Derry, Northern Ireland, to Irish Catholic parents, John James and Elisabeth Bernadette Devlin, where the Catholic majority was manipulated by politics to become the oppressed minority. This oppression gave Bernadette her dissident voice.

A young Bernadette was taught by her mother and father to recite speeches and sing songs, upholding Irish Republican ideals. Her father died when she was just nine years old, the family now relied on welfare to survive. Bernadette’s mother passed when she was a nineteen-year-old University student of psychology, and a founding member of the civil rights movement, People’s Democracy; leaving her to partly bring up her younger siblings, paving the way for the human rights activist she still is today.

Queens University barred Bernadette before she could sit her finals for participating in protests.

“Because of my extra-curricular activity there had been a complaint made by the Tyrone Education Board largely made up of unionist politicians.“The university as a result of that cancelled the last two months of my scholarship and refused to allow me to sit my exams. “And have never apologised for it to this day. “In case they’re thinking of it — too late, don’t bother.” Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. 2022

Devlin stood for independent party “Unity” in the 1969 Northern Ireland general election and lost, only to gain a second chance. The death of George Forrest, MP for Mid Ulster left an opportunity for Bernadette, she won against Forrest’s widow. Devlin took her seat in Westminster Parliament in the April, aged 21, the youngest woman to be elected at that time. She remained so until a 20 year old Mhairi Black claimed the crown in May 2015.

Bernadette’s slogan was “I will take my seat and fight for your rights.” Giving a rousing speech, described by some at the time as the finest maiden speech since Benjamin Disraeli’s in 1837.

“There is no place in society for us, the ordinary ‘peasants’ of Northern Ireland.. because we are the have-nots and they are the haves… The situation with which we are faced in Northern Ireland is one in which I feel I can no longer say to the people, ‘Don’t worry. Westminster is looking after you.” Bernadette Devlin.

Devlin stood with Irish catholic residents in the Battle of the Bogside, a three-day riot in August 1969 protesting their treatment by RUC police and unionists, who now, had marched on catholic homes. They fought back with stones and petrol bombs inciting riots across Northern Ireland; British troops were deployed… this is seen as the start of the thirty-year conflict known as “the troubles.” In our family, we called it the struggle for freedom.

Soon after the Battle of the Bogside, Bernadette embarked on a tour of America to garner support for the civil rights movement, giving her support to oppressed African Americans.

In Philadelphia, Bernadette had to encourage an African American singer to perform “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song which became a civil rights protest song, to a largely unresponsive Irish American audience. In Detroit, she refused to take the stage until African Americans were let in.

Devlin was given the key to the city of New York by Mayor John Lindsey which she graciously accepted. However, she sent it back with friend and colleague Eamonn McCann who gave it to a representative of the Black Panthers Harlem Chapter saying it belonged to the poor people of New York.

Frustrated with conservative Irish Americans Bernadette left, chiding Irish immigrants for not standing with the oppressed African American community, reminding them they were once abused by their English oppressors. This reflection was an uncomfortable one.

Unfortunately, Irish American tour organisers used Devlin to fill their coffers, buying weapons to support Irish republican paramilitaries, something Bernadette was opposed to… civil rights support was her objective. Bernadette left the tour to much criticism aimed at her by many to further their own ends.

Devlin was arrested for her involvement in the Battle of the Bogside in December of ’69 and imprisoned for a short term. In 2003 Bernadette was refused entry into America on this conviction, as a threat to national security, even though she had visited many times before. No Irish heritage in the Bush camp then. Bernadette’s dissidence was now aligned with Mohammad Ali’s, whose licence has been revoked by then governor of California Ronald Regan, who was at a Dublin hotel when Ali and Bernadette met.

After re-election at the 1970 general election, Devlin declared that she would sit in Parliament as an independent socialist.

Constantly denied the floor, against parliamentary convention, after witnessing and fired upon at the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry 1972, Bernadette launched at a smirking Home Secretary Reginald Maudlin, grabbing his tie and backhanding him across his face in the House of Commons for excusing the massacre by the British parachute regiment, of unarmed protesters in cold blood, known as Bloody Sunday. They shot twenty-six of which fourteen died and injured many others. Devlin refused to apologise saying in her infamous Northern Irish accent, “I’m just sorry I didn’t get him by the throat.”

Thirteen years later, former prime minister, Edward Heath recalled.

“I remember very well when an hon. Lady rushed from the Opposition Benches and hit Mr Maudling. I remember that vividly because I thought that she was going to hit me. She could not stretch as far as that, so she had to make do with him.”

Bernadette scorned Irish landlords who took part in human rights marches besides tenants they charged inflated rental prices. This is a woman who takes no prisoners…

Standing with blanket protestors, dirty protestors, and hunger strikers at the Maze prison’s H block, Bernadette was a vocal critic once again of cruel British policies against Irish Catholics, winning a seat as an independent candidate in the 1979 elections to the European Parliament in Northern Ireland.

She was a leading voice for Smash H-Block Campaign, supporting hunger strikers led by Bobby Sands who died along with nine others in protest at the British government’s refusal to recognise them as prisoners of war. There were a further thirteen who were either taken off the strike by their families for medical treatment, or came to the end of the strike.

Anger and disbelief filled our home while the British government seemed to will death after death to prove their strength. I can not and will not type the name of that woman who led the conservative party at that time.

In 1981, Bernadette, now McAliskey, and her husband Michael, survived an assassination attempt by Ulster freedom fighters, a cover name for the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association. Bernadette was shot nine times in front of her children. British soldiers on patrol opposite the McAliskey home took half an hour to respond; their home phone wires had been cut. Eventually one of the newly arrived troops giving first aid commandeered a neighbour’s car to get help from a local councillor. Bernadette and Michael were eventually airlifted to a nearby hospital.

Shock engulfed our home, fearful Bernadette and Michael would not survive this deadly attack.

Bernadette has claimed that the patrol, “were there to make sure that the gunmen got into my house and that they were caught on the way out.”

A vocal critic of the Good Friday agreement, Bernadette criticised all parties for not considering the people of Northern Ireland’s juxtaposition. Segregation still exists, as does animosity on both sides of political and religious dogmas. Power sharing through Stormont talks are at a standstill.

In Bernadette’s own words…

The “shared spaces” are the shopping centres and to some extent workplaces, but not the places where people live. The peace process was never about ending sectarianism, but about “managing it and keeping it within the parameters of nonviolence and political control.”

“If you reflect back on it, the explanation for me is that this is a militarist philosophy, afraid of democracy. It doesn’t trust the people. [The parties] work in government in exactly the same way. It’s not that they don’t understand democracy. They don’t believe in it. And the institutions that arise from that are institutions of control.

It suited both the British and Irish governments to acquiesce in this, she believes. “If they were serious about changing Northern Ireland, they would have insisted on a 20-year strategy for desegregating housing, desegregating education, ending our private and cultural segregation.” Source: Interview in the Irish Times with Kitty Holland.

In 1994, Bernadette addressed funeral attendees after carrying and kissing the coffin of her close friend, Dominic McGlinchey. He was a former chief of staff for the Irish National Liberation Army and Co-founder of The Irish Republican Socialist Party with Bernadette. She chided the press and journalists responsible for recently tarnishing McGlinchey’s name, labelling him a drug dealer. Devlin said that they are, “curs and dogs. May every one of them rot in hell. They have taken away Dominic McGlinchy’s character and they will stand judgement for it. He was the finest Republican of them all. He never dishonoured the cause he believed in. His war was with the armed soldiers and the police of this state”.

A few months later in an interview, Bernadette was asked if her tirade was to counter act press defamation of McGlinchey. Devlin praised McGlinchey for his democratic thinking, and “the finest republican of his generation”. Of course, Bernadette, in her usual wit, said. “The rest of it I might take back…I don’t even believe in hell.”

Unfortunately, an insightful out of print memoir, The Price of My Soul covers Irelands pre 1969 history and the civil rights movement. It also gives a little of Bernadette’s background.

Bernadette now works for the human rights of immigrants, travellers, single parents, and people with intellectual difficulties, in County Tyrone. She set up STEP, South Tyrone Empowerment Program. As always, challenging those in power on behalf of people discarded by the affluent.

James G Brennan 2022

For Sylvia Wohlfarth, our own human rights worker in the Republic of Ireland.

Thank you, Somsubhra Banerjee, Priyanka Srivastava, Rahul Sharma for giving my words a platform.🙏✨🙏✨🙏✨

Thank you, Somsubhra Banerjee for publishing this piece. 🙏✨

Thank you all for reading and your precious time. Always. J. 🙏☘✨



James G Brennan
Literary Impulse

Writes free to read eclectic free verse poetry. "Everything in life is writable about" Sylvia Plath.