‘Fidel Castro in a miniskirt’: Bernadette Devlin’s first US tour

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Volume 17

Robert Ballagh’s 1999 ‘Battle of the Bogside, Portrait of Bernadette Devlin‘. (Private Collection)

Robert Ballagh’s 1999 ‘Battle of the Bogside, Portrait of Bernadette Devlin‘. (Private Collection)

The tour was organised by the unlikely team of physical-force Irish-American republicans and Brian Heron, leader of the newly formed National Association for Irish Justice. An experienced left-wing political organiser, Heron was tolerated by the politically conservative republicans because he happened to be the grandson of James Connolly. Heron tolerated the republicans because their goal of establishing a fighting fund overlapped with his own. On the surface, Devlin and Heron should have gotten on famously, but Devlin was collecting donations for relief, not arms. For Heron the days of stones and petrol bombs were over.
Devlin swept through New York escorted by a police force wilfully ignorant of her revolutionary rhetoric. She took part in Meet the Press and the Johnny Carson Show. Mayor Lindsay gave her the key to the city of New York, she met with U Thant of the United Nations, and she was showered with cash the entire time.
As the tour progressed, Devlin began to pick up distinctly orange tones in the green rhetoric of the organisers. She marvelled at how the Irish in America failed to draw the obvious parallel between themselves and American blacks. In Philadelphia she danced with a black tenor on stage, asked him to sing the American civil rights anthem, ‘We shall overcome’, and shamed the audience into standing for him. The dignitaries, clergy and Hibernians, however, remained stuck to their seats. Then the unthinkable happened. She visited Operation Bootstrap, a manufacturing venture run by members of the Black Power movement. Despite warnings, Devlin continued her assault on Irish America’s racism, and reports of it tore through the newswires.
On her way back to the East Coast she stopped in Detroit and refused to speak until the black people waiting outside were admitted. While there, Chicago activists warned the tour organisers that if she visited Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket she would face consequences. Though the message had the desired effect, Devlin acquired a new target. She hurled the words ‘corrupt’ and ‘RUC’ across the pages of the local papers at a hugely popular Mayor Daley and his police. He cancelled her appearance. The two Unionist Party representatives sent to neutralise her tour could not have been more delighted. Almost the instant their toes hit the tarmac they happily clucked that Devlin was nothing less than ‘Fidel Castro in a miniskirt’ and sang a gleeful chorus of ‘We told you so’.
Devlin’s relationship with much of Irish America was in tatters by the end of the tour, as was her rapport with Heron and the republicans. At one of the last events she overheard an organiser tell Heron, ‘Never mind, play her along. We’ve got the money and that’s all that matters’. Immediately she rang Frank Gogarty, chair of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and demanded that he fly to America. Upon arriving, Gogarty announced that while he endorsed Devlin’s tour, he had come to raise money for arms. Devlin wasted no time in booking the next flight home.
Back in Ireland, Eamonn McCann admonished her for accepting the key to New York from Mayor John Lindsay, an American Republican famed for his mismanagement of the city. She responded by sending the key to New York with McCann, who was on his way to America to do his own speaking tour. McCann presented it to Robert Bay of the Black Panthers ‘as a gesture of solidarity with the black liberation and revolutionary socialist movements in America’. He read out her message: ‘I return what is rightfully theirs, this symbol of the freedom of New York’. But contrary to what she may have hoped, it did very little to shore up her credibility among her colleagues in Northern Ireland. Charles Whelan, Irish consul general in New York, sent a memorandum to the Department of External Affairs: ‘the fact that Bernadette Devlin is personally associated with this gesture . . . will make it far more difficult for any civil rights supporter from the Six Counties to obtain assistance, financial or otherwise’. This was an understatement.
A few days later, when Devlin wrote to New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade committee with the ludicrous offer to march under certain conditions, the Daily News reported that Devlin would not be welcome under any circumstances. At meetings of the Ancient Order of Hibernians attacks on Devlin were greeted with cheers. Later, when questioned by Ivan Cooper, a moderate civil rights advocate from Northern Ireland, she exclaimed, ‘Och, sure that was a joke!’ But Irish America was not laughing. Predictably, the financial support for the Civil Rights movement dried up.
Bernadette Devlin’s 1969 tour of America peeled back the layers of the radical rhetoric of Irish America to expose a conservative hegemony that was willing to embrace racist attitudes for its own advancement. While leaders in the community repeated charges of institutionalised discrimination against Northern Irish Catholics, their myopia eliminated the obvious analogy. Her tour also brought into sharper relief two competing wings of support for Northern Ireland. While they had forged a fragile coalition based on their support for militancy, they could not sustain it.
This tour had a profound impact on Bernadette Devlin’s political development as well. She returned home to face jail time for her role in the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ and to discover that many of her colleagues had moved on and left her reputation in their wake. Their public attacks mischaracterised her motives in Derry and the US as self-glorifying bids for stardom rather than the ill-fated attempts at political leadership that they were. The key incident, though extraordinarily imaginative, signalled the final gasp of breath for Irish America’s support for much of the Northern Irish Civil Rights leadership.
Was she just a puppet? If we indict her for not asking enough questions, we must also hold the tour organisers accountable for manipulating both Devlin and her audience. Was she wrong to scorn Irish America’s help in the end? Though she could have done little else but flee the tour, the key incident reveals just how much she still had to learn. Bernadette Devlin’s political growth paralleled the increasing complexity of the unfolding crisis in Northern Ireland. This tour, though ill-fated, taught all involved valuable lessons in the politics of politics. Her speeches held a mirror up to America and dared it to make sense of its own reflection. The aftermath of the tour heralded a new era of Irish-American support for Catholics in Northern Ireland, one that reinforced physical-force republicanism as the central ideology. A year later Bernadette Devlin would return to the US, the same tenacious young politician she had been, but this time she would make the rules.  HI

Tara Keenan-Thomson is the director of the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Further reading:

P. Arthur, The People’s Democracy: 1968–1973 (Belfast, 1974).

B. Dooley, Black and green: fight for civil rights in Northern Ireland and black America (London, 1998).

M. Farrell, Twenty years on (Dingle, 1988).

B. Purdie, Politics on the streets: the origins of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland (Belfast, 1990).

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