By Thomas McEnery
It was a strange gathering at the University of San Francisco Gym on February 21, 1971. The audience consisted of elderly couples, quartets of matrons, priests, nuns, students, radical leftist types, Black nationalists, and those commonly referred to by the sobriquet of “hippies”; it could well be called a true, albeit temporary, closing of the generation gap. The object of this dŽtente was an address delivered by an Irish Member of the British Parliament. The Tricolor was nowhere to be seen, no choruses of “The Soldiers Song” were sung, no shamrocks or banners, and except for a few stray neckties, the color green was conspicuously absent. For this was not to be the usual pre-St. Patrick’s Day convocation, no cries of “Erin go Bragh” or “Unity for Ireland” would resound through the hall. Although the reddish-brown hair and facial shading was unmistakably Irish, the clenched fist was strangely alien, and though the lilt of brogue in the relentless monotone was easily identifiable, the sentiments expressed were a diverse grouping of Marxist dialectic with the now pervasive chords of student disenchantment. It was an amazing almost overwhelming display, but one easily explained: the speaker was Irish-and she was Bernadette Devlin.
Since arriving on the international scene with her election to Westminster in the spring of 1969, Bernadette Devlin’s mercurial rise has been scarcely paralleled in Irish history. The maiden speech of this twenty-two year-old neophyte in the sacrosanct House of Commons evoked even the admiration of the staid Tory benches for its candor and sincerity. From this debarkation point she has won the role as the chief spokesman of the downtrodden Catholics in Northern Ireland, and become the aspiring champion of a socialist government in both halves of the country. She is called Anti-Christ and saint, Communist and patriot, and yet whatever she is it is only through a sound knowledge of Ireland, the land and people, that one can hope to truly understand the latest of her apostles.
They are a people with a deep and abiding sense of their past, for centuries of religious persecution, economic exploitation, and countless rebellions have left an indelible mark on them. Since the first landing of Henry II’s Norman host in the twelfth century, the spectacle of revolt, repression, and reprisal was repeated again and again. Elizabeth, Cromwell, William III-they all tried their hand at subduing Ireland and in the process, shackled her with what Edmund Burke called “the most iniquitous laws” ever devised by man. These efforts were all unsuccessful in varying degrees, and the list of martyrs and heroes grew increasingly larger.
The ideas of the French Revolution gave a new impetus to the quest for freedom. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the image of an Irish Republic preoccupied the erstwhile revolutionaries. Each defeat only prompted new emotion, new preparations, and concurrently, cultural awareness and inspiration became a key ingredient of the struggle. Methods of constitutional redress obtained a number of noteworthy concessions in that century, but the objective of this was merely Dominion status, not a Republic, and as World War One began, Ireland could rest assured that upon the conclusion of hostilities, she would receive a measure of self-government within the British system. Dutifully then, hundreds of thousands of Irishmen volunteered to fight for the King and defend “poor, struggling Belgium.” To others the war would not be so distant. Certain intellectuals were determined to awaken Ireland from her doldrums, and rekindle the dormant fires of nationalism by a blood sacrifice.
On Easter Monday, 1916, twelve hundred men marched out against an Empire, and a Republic was proclaimed in the heart of Dublin City. The cause was hopeless from the start. Their own people considered them fanatics; both the social and the political ideas of the rebels were anathema to the majority of their countrymen. Yet against incredible odds they held out for a week; then it was quickly finished. The British, with characteristic understanding of the Irish, lined the brooding poets and bright-eyed teachers against a wall and shot them. The apathy of Ireland was gone. The gallantry and audacity of the rebels, together with the harshness of the retaliatory measures had buried it in a quicklime grave. The poet Yeats put it aptly: “A terrible beauty is born.”
The ideal of a Republic had recaptured the Irish imagination. In rapid succession the nationalist “Sinn Fein” party swept the country except for the extreme Northeast, Protestant sector. A bloody guerilla war ensued, with a brutality and intolerance seldom seen even in Ireland’s stormy past. Finally, after years of conflict and pain, the nobler side of England, along with an ever-increasing world outcry, demanded an end to the carnage.
The populace of Ireland had stood together and supported their underground fighters, the clandestine Irish Republican Army, or I.R.A., with a rare solidarity. The negotiations for peace were to become a new and more terrible trial. Energetic and affable Michael Collins, the architect of the I.R.A., met in London with Lloyd George and Winston Churchill; he accepted a treaty extending Dominion status and separating six northern counties of the province of Ulster from the whole of Ireland. A majority of the I.R.A. was opposed to this agreement, led by the second of the great revolutionary leaders, Eamon De Valera. The elusive Republic beckoned, and with great nobility and great pettiness, the country marched inexorably toward civil ware. When it came, it was fought with a savagery endemic to fratricidal conflicts. Collins died in a skirmish; De Valera was hounded and harried; the ranks of the I.R.A. were decimated, its leaders executed or imprisoned. The anguish lasted until 1923 when the I.R.A. conceded defeat, buried their arms, and returned home.
There was little left of the terrible beauty. The successors of the revolution were politicians in the worst sense of the word. De Valera, released from internment, broke with the militant remnants of the I.R.A., and entered the Irish Parliament, or Dail, in 1927. By the thirties, his new party had established an ascendancy, and led by their ascetic leader, began a rule that was to last almost uninterrupted until this day. The construction of an insular, Gaelic Ireland, true to the isolationist precepts of the revolution was the goal. A Republic was proclaimed and a fierce economic war was England followed. The result was disaster: the country stagnated and emigration increased to near panic level in the mid-fifties. Finally, in 1959, De Valera stepped down, and the country moved forward. His protŽgŽs instituted a vast program of industrialization, encouragement of foreign capital, and a titanic public relations assault. The country was now moving into the mainstream of Europe, diligently pressing for admission to the Common Market, when suddenly the not-so-distant past raised its head to the north, still a part of Great Britain. Catholics marched for civil rights and outside Derry were beaten to the ground by police; in Dublin, two ministers of the Irish Government were arrested and charged with smuggling arms to rebels in Ulster. The long-quiescent I.R.A. began to make ominous rumblings, while Catholics in Belfast rioted in the streets. Whether anyone liked it or not, the obnoxious shadow of Partition still hung over the head of an Ireland buzzing into the Space Ave. Centuries of oppression and hatred are once again mirrored in the faces of the people. Foremost among these faces is a girl from Cookstown, dead center in the truncated province of Ulster, Bernadette Devlin.
It was once remarked that Irish patriotism was like a divine religion, transferred from generation to generation like an apostolic succession. In Bernadette Devlin we see the product of an environment quite peculiar to Ireland. A realm where literature blends with history, all the old glories, all the old inequities live anew. The specter of broken treaties, martyred heroes, sacked churches rise again. This is the heritage of a revolutionary, and as if the past were not enough to provide adequate incentive, one had only to look at the hungry faces of children in the Bogside slums of Derry, to the haggard expressions of despair in the Falls Road ghetto of Belfast, to the muted anger in the faces of the women. Of a population of one and a half million in these six counties, fully a third are Catholic. They are the forgotten of Ireland, living behind a totally artificial border. Britain evacuated the southern counties half a century ago, but not before firmly ensconcing a viable Protestant regime in the North. It is much the same tactic of withdrawal that America is attempting to employ in Southeast Asia. The English achieved their goal with a disconcerting ease. This reactionary government has been maintained in control by wholesale gerrymandering, substantial British subsidies, thousands of British troops, and a police state employing a ruthless batch of laws, noxious to even the most vehement opponents of “crime and anarchy.”
What Bernadette Devlin faced in Northern Ireland was a land where religion was used, as Lord Clarendon put it, like “a cloak to cover the most impious designs of men.” While in London, the Protestant churches led in the ecumenical movement, and the Union Jack graced undershirts and derrires, this bastard-state rapped itself in the same flag and shouted psalms to the heavens. Protestants despised and feared, and the Catholics returned it in kind. Here was a rule that actively encouraged the unemployment of Catholics, a rule that created Catholic slums as a part of a master plan to reduce their voting power and protect Protestant enclaves, a rule where “one man, one vote” was a laughable concept, and up to six votes or more were awarded to property or business owners. It was a land that cried for justice. Bernadette Devlin was neither the cause, nor the leader of the recent tumult; she was merely the manifestation of a festering wound. As a na•ve student, she joined a civil rights movement, a movement that won many grudging concessions for the oppressed minority. Yet, just as American civil rights legislation preceded the Watts and Detroit conflagrations, so too in Northern Ireland, where the cities erupted in masochistic destruction. Sectarianism of both Catholic and Protestant varieties left Bernadette seeking a new, less sterile road to ameliorate the miseries of the people. Polarization was rampant. Like so many before her, he recognized evil clearly, but which was the way to something of lasting good?
Many of the ideas and actions, which she now propounds, are hardly likely to win any real support among Irishmen. She speaks where other falter; equivocation is not her forte. It is never expedient to attack the Catholic Church in Ireland, although the hierarchy’s perverse position in opposing every nationalist movement for generations is widely and rightfully held true; Bernadette attacks it. While Socialism has a long history in Irish political theorem, and one of the greatest of the Eastertide patriots was an avowed Socialist, she is today branded as an atheistic Communist, alien to all good and holy in that land. Politicians of both religions, on both sides of the border, and on either shore of the Irish Sea are decried for their self-seeking strategies and contemptible platitudes; they rise to defend one another. In America, mayors and Congressmen are scrupulously avoided, and the conferences are with the young, Blacks, Indians, and others of the so-called disinherited classes. Violence is explained as not an end, but a requisite means to obtain liberty. It is violence, she says, to allow one’s self to be beaten; it is violence to have your children hungry and your family disrupted; it is violence to watch your humanity removed without raising a cry of opposition and anger.
So there Bernadette Devlin stands on the podium. Her voice raised in anger and with it her fist. The dialogue is often the hackneyed “workers of the world” syndrome, and the answers punctuated with simplistic trivia not meriting even passing consideration. Still, as she condemns sectarian education for causing much of them dissension and fear in the miniscule six counties, it is indeed heartening. As she sounds the clarion call for a syncretism of workers to make a better world, it is sincere and refreshing. While she acknowledges that the problems of America and other segments of the globe dwarf the inequalities and traumas of tiny Ireland, Bernadette Devlin is nevertheless determined to begin somewhere. The magnificent juncture of the industrial workers of Northern Ireland with the rural workers of Eire into a great Irish Socialist Republic is, of course, a totally quixotic goal, for these “proletarians” are essentially as conservative and unrevolutionary as their “hard hat” American Cousins. Furthermore, ideology, as Professor Toynbee detailed, will always succumb to nationalism when a contest occurs. However, Bernadette continues on her journey. There are no windmills to fight in Ireland, but there is agony, deprivation, apathy, and hatred: in other words, an excellent microcosm of our present world.
A strange conglomeration of Irish nationalism, student idealism, and common humanity presented itself at the University of San Francisco on February 21st. Some may call it puerile or dangerous; others might see in it a brief glimmer of hope for the times ahead. On the Tricolor, green is joined by white with orange, symbolizing the union of North and South, Protestant and Catholic, night and day. It means to herald the joining of two disparate parts of a bloodstained island, two worlds together as one. The audience perhaps sensed this as they listened to the diminutive Irish girl with the calmly reasoning voice. It was not necessary to display the Irish flag or any flag. It might well be an excellent spirit for St. Patrick’s Day, 1971.