“We were born into an unjust system; we are not prepared to grow old in it.”
The fact that Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has grown old enough to celebrate her 69th birthday today is all you really need to know about her courage, tenacity, and toughness. And the fact that Northern Ireland, the land in which she lives, is no longer as brutally unjust as it was in her youth is testament to her unyielding commitment to fight for equal rights and justice, whatever the cost. As McAliskey would be the first to say, that fight is by no means over. But I shudder to think what the country of my grandfather, whose name I proudly bear, would look like today if not for Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, after whom my oldest daughter is named.
Not that my grandparents—who sailed on separate ships four months apart from Liverpool to America in 1920 and were married on Ellis Island so my grandmother would be allowed into the home of the free—or their relatives who stayed behind would have been fans. Quite the opposite. They were Protestants and Orange loyalists. I grew up in a different country, in a different time, and from an early age, I have believed that pitting working class Catholics against Protestants was a cynical and deadly strategy to keep those at the bottom of society from realizing who their real common enemy was.
Born in 1947, Bernadette was the third of six children. Her father, who taught her Irish history when she was still a child, died when she was 9, leaving her mother to raise the children on welfare, a dehumanizing experience that helped shape Bernadette’s worldviews. Her mother died when Bernadette was 18. She was attending Queen’s University, and helped care for her siblings as she got involved in the budding civil rights movement.
“It wasn’t long before people discovered the final horrors of letting an urchin into Parliament.”
In 1969, at the age of 21, Bernadette Devlin—a fiery speaker, socialist, republican, and civil rights activist—stood for election in the Mid-Ulster District, and became the youngest female ever elected as a Member of Parliament (MP). It’s a distinction she still holds today, almost half a century later.
She also became an international sensation, the wee girl in a miniskirt storming the stuffy chambers of Westminster. The media coverage was almost universally condescending and insulting, but Devlin handled it with an aplomb and professionalism that her inevitably older male interrogators lacked. During her five years in Parliament, she literally and figuratively fought for the rights of oppressed working people. She stood with Catholic residents trying to end the occupation by British troops during the August 1969 Battle of the Bogside, and was convicted in 1970 on charges of inciting rioting. Devlin spent four months in prison while still an MP.
In January 1972, she walked across the House of Commons and, in what she called a “proletarian protest,” punched British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling after he defended British paratroopers who fired on unarmed civil rights activists in Derry on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. In the video clip above, when one of the media horde presses Bernadette on whether she would apologize to Maudling, she replies: “I’m just sorry I didn’t get him by the throat.” Fourteen people died of the wounds inflicted by the troops, and history has proven Devlin—who was the only Member of Parliament to actually witness the massacre—correct. However, the arc of the moral universe is indeed long as it bends toward justice: It was November 2015 before the first soldier was finally arrested in the killings. More significantly, while the British government has offered apologies for the murder of innocent civilians, no government official from the time has been held accountable.
Devlin had a child out of wedlock—causing a scandal that harmed her political support at home—before marrying Michael McAliskey in 1973. She lost her seat in Parliament in 1974, but continued to remain active in socialist and republican politics.
Play the video above to hear Black 47’s Change, a song inspired by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey that originally appeared on their third album. Read Larry Kirwin’s blog post, “Bernadette and Change.“
“To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.”
Bernadette Devlin wrote those words in the Foreword to her autobiography, The Price of My Soul, published in 1969. On a cold January night in 1981, they very nearly proved prophetic.
She was in bed, her 2-year-old son, Fintan, beside her, when gunmen burst into McAliskey’s Coalisland home and riddled her body with bullets. Her husband Michael, who had gotten out of bed when he heard a noise at the door, also was cut down in a hail of gunfire—including a bullet to the head.
As McAliskey told the great New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin in an article that ran in People magazine, of all places, a few months later: “I did a mental runabout to see if I was shot where it would kill me. If I found the worst spot, then I could concentrate on it and stay alive for the children. I found I was having trouble breathing. So I concentrated on breathing to stay alive. I kind of shifted myself over to the bed and pulled the baby down, with the cover. I wrapped the cover over the two of us and just stayed on the floor and made sure I could breathe.”
As they fled the home, the gunmen were immediately caught by British paratroopers, who just happened to be in the neighborhood waiting for them—40 miles away from their barracks, in an area they rarely patrolled.
“The soldiers were there to make sure that the gunmen got into my house and that they were caught on the way out,” McAliskey told Breslin. “The gunmen were set up and so were we.”
Miraculously, both Bernadette and her husband survived the attack, and within six weeks, she was out of the hospital. Unbowed, and on crutches, she announced that she was running for a seat in the House of Commons. However, she dropped out to support jailed IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who won the election, but soon after sacrificed his life as part of a campaign to shame the Brits into recognizing the H-Block inmates as political prisoners.
It was not the first, nor last, time that the British demonstrated that when it came to Ireland, they were beyond shame.
In the years since the gunmen burst into her home with guns blazing, McAliskey has continued to fight the good fight, including standing up in the past decade for the rights of gays and lesbians to march in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, another battle that was only won this year.
She has lived an extraordinary life, one filled with passion and purpose, and has inspired thousands around the world. Count me as one of them.
In 1982, just one year after the assassination attempt, my wife, Cathy, and I were considering names for our first-born daughter, and we quickly settled on Bernadette. For me, naming her for someone who had demonstrated such courage and perseverance in fighting for equal rights and justice seemed a fitting way to honor one of my early political heroines.
And this is one of those places where politics and music intertwined so beautifully to make it clear we were making the right choice. Both Cathy and I love The Four Tops song, Bernadette.
And you can never go wrong listening to Levi Stubbs.
This is my debut post in From a Pawned Smith Corona. Most of the rest will be considerably shorter. Scout’s honor.