Saturday 21 September 2019

Dan Geary: 'Devlin's US trip revealed more in common with black struggle than with Irish America'

Powerful voice: Bernadette Devlin, then a 21-year-old MP for Mid-Ulster, addresses a crowd at the Bogside in Derry in 1969, soon after her election to Westminster. Photo: PA Wire
Powerful voice: Bernadette Devlin, then a 21-year-old MP for Mid-Ulster, addresses a crowd at the Bogside in Derry in 1969, soon after her election to Westminster. Photo: PA Wire

Dan Geary

Today, the most famous Northern Irishman in the US is actor Liam Neeson, who recently sparked outrage when he recalled wanting to assault a "black bastard" in vengeance for the rape of a friend by a black man.

But a half-century ago the best known person to hail from the North was civil rights activist Bernadette Devlin. Fifty years ago this August, she embarked on a sensational tour of the United States that helped cement her international reputation. Like Neeson, though in a very different way, she ignited controversy by addressing the issue of race.

As I will explore at a public discussion entitled 'Behind the Headlines: Does Race Matter?' in Trinity College Dublin today, Devlin captured US national media attention on a tour sponsored by Irish-American groups designed to highlight Catholic oppression in Northern Ireland.

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At the start of the Troubles, American attention was shifting toward Ulster, and the fashionably dressed, charismatic 22-year-old MP Devlin was a major attraction. She spoke to mass audiences in US cities, gave interviews to national media outlets, and even appeared on the 'Tonight Show with Johnny Carson'.

Devlin's popularity was so threatening to Unionists that Stormont dispatched a 'Truth Squad' of MPs to the US to rebuff her claims and Ian Paisley embarked on his own US speaking tour organised by his ally, right-wing minister Carl McIntire.

Throughout her visit, Devlin repeatedly made common cause with African Americans. After all, the Northern Irish civil rights movement had taken considerable inspiration from the African-American movement, borrowing tactics, iconography, and even the 'civil rights' name.

But Devlin's identification with African Americans surprised Irish Americans. At a rally in Philadelphia, Devlin discomforted her audience when she asked the African-American singer there to provide the night's entertainment to sing the civil rights anthem 'We Shall Overcome'. In Detroit, Devlin refused to speak until hundreds of African Americans were allowed into the venue. In Chicago, she pointedly declined to meet with Irish-American Mayor Richard Daley partly because she viewed his policies as racist. And most controversially, a key to the city presented to Devlin by the mayor of New York City was later given to the Black Panthers.

Devlin was frustrated by Irish Americans who actively supported civil rights for Catholics in Northern Ireland but not racial equality in the US. "I cannot understand," she said, "the mental conflict of some of our Irish Americans who will fight forever for the struggle for justice in Ireland, and who yet play the role of the oppressor and will not stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow black Americans."

She was particularly disturbed by some of her hosts, wealthy Irish Americans, who repeated racist tropes. To Devlin, they "looked and sounded like Orangemen. They said exactly the same things about blacks that the Loyalists said about us at home".

Irish Americans were baffled by Devlin's equation of the two civil rights struggles. The Irish, like other European immigrant groups in the US, had obtained social privilege by defining themselves as "white".

Many conservative Irish Americans, like other white Americans, denied the persistent reality of racial inequality and viewed African-American inequality as self-inflicted. But even liberal Irish Americans were puzzled by Devlin's claims, seeing no links between the causes of Irish and African-American freedom.

Only a few Irish Americans were inspired to draw parallels, notably leading New Left activist Tom Hayden who recalled, "After a decade in the civil rights movement, I associated 'white' with either supremacy or emptiness. Then, in 1968...I saw marchers in Northern Ireland singing 'We Shall Overcome' and, in an epiphany, discovered that I was Irish on the inside." Hayden would soon journey to Northern Ireland to lend support to the civil rights struggle there.

Irish Americans took their white identity for granted. But there is never anything natural about race. Only a few generations before, the Irish had themselves been considered a different and inferior race. And Devlin showed that in Northern Ireland it was possible for an Irish woman to not just support the cause of African-American civil rights, but to actively identify herself with it.

That her identification was so different from a Northern Irish celebrity's confession to white racist fear of black rapists 50 years later illustrates the complicated relationship between people of Irish and African descents.

Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott Associate Professor of History at Trinity College Dublin. He will be participating in 'Behind the Headlines: Does Race Matter?' public discussion hosted by the Trinity Long Room Hub at 6.30pm tonight

Irish Independent

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