Bernadette Devlin

by John Boland

Irish Independent, February 4, 2012

Whenever someone mentions the name Bernadette Devlin (not often, as it happens), the image I summon up is of a long-haired slip of a girl in a miniskirt standing on a windswept platform and delivering speeches full of youthful fury – a politicised Dana, if you like, before Dana herself got political.

Whenever I think of Bernadette McAliskey, as she then became, it’s as someone who changed from a fiery wee girl into a hardened woman and to whom various unflattering epithets effortlessly attach themselves – chief among them being zealous, implacable, unrelenting, self-righteous and humourless.

To be fair to the woman, she’s only too aware of how others have perceived her throughout her four decades of socialist-republican activism, but as Lelia Doolan’s 90-minute Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey (TG4) made clear, she couldn’t give two hoots about it, merely noting that her real self bears “no relation to the imaginary person who lives in the minds of different people at different times.”

However, viewers hoping for an insight into the “real” Bernadette would have come away disappointed from this absorbing profile, which didn’t divulge any information about relationships or marriage or how many children she has and declined to clarify precisely what she meant when she asserted that “all my children have paid dearly for my being their mother.”

Still, there was enough here to give a potent sense of what it has meant to be Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey, though the filmmaker’s task was made easier by the convenience that in almost half a century her convictions and core beliefs haven’t wavered at all. This made the film’s subtitle somewhat misleading, given that a journey implies starting from one point and arriving somewhere else, which was not the case here.

Indeed, she viewed her refusal to change or compromise as a virtue inherited from her mother, whom she praised for “a rebelliousness, an awkwardness, a contrariness – I think they’re impeccable credentials”, though she was also strongly shaped by her father, a “republican socialist idealist.”

Much of the film’s fascination lay in its archive footage, a good deal of which I hadn’t seen before, and much, too, in the observations of the woman herself, whose commitment, courage and articulacy have never been in doubt. There’s always been an essential honesty there, too, as in her acknowledgment that being able to boast of blood-free hands can be because “we let other people do our killing for us.”

Ultimately, though, she remains the hard-line old republican socialist from forty-something years ago, witheringly arguing that the “pain, loss, death, destruction and brutalisation” of the Troubles merely led to “the right to participate equally in British rule in the North of Ireland,” with “everyone in the club and nobody driving the bus.”

I found her intractable (and increasingly marginalised) stance depressing, though when she spoke of the segregation and sectarianism that still exist in the North and saw “the opportunities for badness re-emerging” it was hard not to concede that she might very well be right, while hoping that she isn’t.

North and South were given a more upbeat spin in Great British Railway Journeys Goes to Ireland, which ran for five nights on BBC2 and travelled around the coast from Wicklow to Derry, with various stopovers and diversions along the way.

As with previous excursions through England, Scotland and Wales, Michael Portillo was the personable and always engaged traveller on our behalf and there was a special piqancy to be had from watching this most debonair of posh Englishmen as he negotiated the Dart, the Luas and the Greystones train in his fetching pink jacket.

And though I’ve boarded or disembarked from the Dart at Connolly station on countless occasions, it took this enthusiastic outsider to alert me to the fact that it was “a glorious structure worthy of a capital city.”

He was just as agog about William Dargan’s achievement in tunnelling through Bray Head, indeed declaring that he’d developed an “intense admiration” for Dargan, while also expressing his “joy” at being in Dublin, “a city of which I’ve many memories and of which I am very fond.” Puffed up with pride at such compliments, this Dublin viewer felt just as fond of Portillo.

Terror at Sea: The Sinking of the Concordia (Channel 4) promised “the definitive story” of this month’s cruise ship disaster off the Italian coast, but with the investigation not expected to reach a conclusion in the immediate future that wasn’t really true.

Still, what the film showed, mainly through the phone cameras of crew members and passengers, was startling in its vividness, while the testimonies of various English passengers were frightening, too, even if some of them had to fall back on popular culture to invoke what they had experienced, with one young man noting “What you see on the film Titanic – that’s what I was relating to.”

A Little Bit TV (RTE1) celebrates Irish television’s fifty years by profiling eight of its broadcasters – not Gay Byrne or Brian Farrell or other John Bowman or other genuine eminences but the likes of Grainne Seoige, Theresa Lowe and Blathnaid ni Chofaigh.

The programme about the latter was thirty minutes of me-me-me and let-me-tell-you-howgreat- I-am. Include me out.


Prisoners’ Wives (BBC1) is like Footballers’ Wives, only there are no footballers, just guys behind bars. Oh, and it’s not so trashy, either, none of the women being required to get their kit off by the end of the first episode.

In fact, Julie Gearey’s six-part drama may be too sincere and well-intentioned for its own good, though a bright script and arresting performances from the central women should ensure its success as an upmarket soap opera.

To the forefront this week was the striking Emma Rigby as pregnant young wife Gemma, bewildered when cops storm her home and haul her sweet hubby off for murdering someone. Polly Walker’s good, too, as seen-it-all spouse of incarcerated drug trafficker Iain Glen, and enough tantalising loose ends have been created for the viewer to wonder what will happen next.

What more could you want on a Tuesday evening?

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