Media and the making of an Irish heroine

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

‘Fidel Castro in a miniskirt’—Bernadette Devlin in San Francisco on her second US tour in February 1971. (Robert Altman Photography)

‘Fidel Castro in a miniskirt’—Bernadette Devlin in San Francisco on her second US tour in February 1971. (Robert Altman Photography)

How did a self-professed revolutionary socialist draw throngs of Irish-American conservatives? Like its British and Irish counterparts, the American press fell over itself to paint her as a Dark Rosaleen. The Daily News trumpeted her first press conference: ‘Fighting colleen breezes in’. The Irish Echo cooed: ‘She is, in fact, a born leader … of such people . . . are legends made’. Predictably, most of the coverage delighted in her femininity at the expense of her message: Seán Cronin, organiser of the IRA’s 1950s campaign, reported in the Irish Times that ‘she has taken over the city and her cry for justice has come across loud and clear  . . . and her mini skirts help too’. But Devlin’s Trotskyite rhetoric, dating from before her election to Westminster earlier in 1969, was certainly provocative enough to attract more comment than it did, even if in America she polished the edges by focusing her appeals on aid. This suggests that her gender actually gave her a degree of latitude in promoting a class analysis of the disturbances in Northern Ireland, fleeting though it was.

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