Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 15. August 4, 1971
Q: Why do you think Anne Devlin and so many other Irish revolutionary women have been erased from Gaelic history books?
A: Because they were women! It relates to the whole attitude about women in Ireland and what young girls are taught in school. We are taught feminine submission. From the cradle, we are taught an attitude toward our mothers. Girls are taught to expect society to treat us in a certain way because we are female. Our brothers must always defend us against those who don't treat us with feminine respect.
But as to why we forget Anne Devlin in our history books - or rather why we only learn of her as the handmaiden of a great man...You see, if we learned who she really was, why that might just breathe a different kind of spirit into our young women. And we don't want that. No...never.
Q: What role does Mother Church play in developing the docile view of Irish womankind?
A: The Catholic Church in Ireland has always been one of the most reactionary of establishments. It uses the woman's role in society to oppress the whole class.
The church teaches women to accept things within the system; you should accept that there are no day care centers for working mothers simply because the Church believes a woman's place is at home. You should accept that the purpose of getting married is to have children. And there's no way out of marriage with the Church, It's like Sinn Fein - once you're in, you can't get out. But Sinn Fein is a more noble organisation than marriage.
The Church plays a great part in establishing situations that are bad for women. I can give you some examples from my own experiences. As an MP, I handle many kinds of problems of people in the district. I had the "problem' family come to me. They had six children and they lived in a Council house (public housing). They had fallen behind on their debts and couldn't afford coal for heat. So they chopped down the wooden window fronts and used them for firewood. Well, the Council got quite upset and I went down to sort out the dispute. When I got there, the woman told me she was expecting a seventh child! She lived in a three room apartment. She had six children already. And she really couldn't cope with the six not physically, not emotionally. So I told her I could think of a number of economic solutions to her financial problems and that I could also think of another... I asked her what the hell she was going to do with another child? The woman had stated quite clearly after her fourth child that she wanted no more. She just couldn't cope with them all. Besides, the family wouldn't have gotten into financial trouble if they had only four children.
Shortly afterwards, the parish priest came around and told me I was corrupting the morals of the Church. All I had done was to suggest to the woman that she could have an alternative. Abortion is legal in England. I wasn't saying she must do it. It's the Church that tells people what they must and must not do. In the end, the woman did not have an abortion. But I consider it immoral of Mother Church to come along with all her money in the Chase Manhattan Bank and tell poor people they will burn in hell if they have four children instead of seven! When you consider the conditions poor people have to live in, it's positive obscenity.
As for birth control. I think it's immoral for priests to go around telling women it's a sin. They don't allow people to make that decision for themselves. Because of the Church hierarchy, birth control information is by and large unavailable in the Irish Free State.
Q: Beyond the obvious issues of birth control, abortion, and divorce, how does the Irish Church work to oppress women?
A: The Church works very subtly. It inculcates submissive attitudes in young girls during their schooling.
I went to a "young girls'" Catholic school in Northern Ireland. We were taught how we ought to sit and dress and walk and eat and behave "like young ladies". You should never raise your voice above a whispher or talk too much or disagree with people or appear too intelligent. You know, you might not get a husband or something. You might make Our Lady blush! I remember that as one of the more ridiculous elements of our education.
Q: Were you raised with the idea that your goal in life was to get a husband?
A: No, The School I went to was more reactionary than that. I was raised to enter a convent. Higher calling and all that stuff. But should I fail at that, a good second choice was to get a good husband who wore a pioneer pin and the Faine. The faine meant he was a native Irish speaker and that he didn't drink.
As a result of my education, I've always had a built-in prejudice against men who wore both the [unclear: aine] and the pioneer pin. I always saw it as a sign of the type of male to be avoided.
Q: You were sentenced to six months in prison for your role in the defense of the Bogside during August of 1969. What was prison like?
A: It was a good experience. I was the only political prisoner in jail and yet of the ten other women there, all were political criminals.
One old woman was accused of murdering another old woman during a phase of "temporary insanity." They were doing nothing to help her in this prison, just keeping her out of society so they could say justice was being done. But she had spent fifteen years there, locked up, with no help, and it was clear she was there because of society.
She'll be getting out soon, but she'll be so much less a complete human being when she's released. In small ways. She won't have mady a cup of tea in fifteen years. She won't have seen the new money... or felt the touch of a lot of new fabrics. She won't have walked in the rain and gotten wet. Just ordinary things people do. How is she going to cope with that when she gets out? She's had to live in a world no bigger than twleve people for the past fifteen years of her life.
We had prostitutes in prison who were there because they were offending the morals of the people who made them prostitutes. There's a very good story about one of them. She wasn't brought up on charges of prostitution, but rather for theft. She had stolen a biscuit barrel from a cafe. This biscuit barrel was worth thirty shillings, or about four dollars. When she was brought before the judge, it kept page break coming up that she was a prostitute - even though that wasn't what she was charged with.
The judge sentenced the woman to six months in prison for her crime - exactly what I had gotten for three charges of incitement to riot and three charges of actual riot. When the judge sentenced her he said: "Six months in prison. That will keep you away from the Albert Clock!" The Albert Clock, you see, is a place in Belfast where prostitutes congregate. So this prostitute, who really wasn't very smart, looked the judge clearly in the eye and said "Yes, Your Worship, but will it keep you?"
The woman hadn't meant her remark glibly. She actually had seen the magistrate quite often down by the Albert Clock. He was grateful for the services the women down there provide. But he was a judge for being a male prostitute and she was a prisoner for being a female prostitute.
Q: Privately, Bernadette, I've heard you bad-mouth the Women's Liberation Movement. But it sounds that when you get down to talking about issues, you are quite a committed feminist.
A: There are things Women's Liberation engages in that seem to me terribly petty. Like this business of objecting to someone holding a coat or opening a door for you because you are a woman. I don't like the way American feminists seem to identify with all women and do not recognise that there are some women who are the enemy.
Your movement seems too broad. You let in too many middle-class women who only want equality with their professional male counterparts, who do not object to the class nature of society. It's a woman like that, who wishes to enter society as it is presently constituted, who is your enemy. She produces the freak. As long as she gets her rights within the class-structure, she considers all women to be free. It's like the middle-class Catholic in Northern Ireland. As long as he gets his equal membership in the golf clubs, as long as he is allowed free association with the master on equal terms, as long as he joins the ruling class, he does not want an end to the system of ruler and ruled. He just wants to be one of the rulers.
Q: What about the IRA? In the papers here, one always reads that the IRA is behind all the "troubles" in Ulster. In the States, some weeks back, every paper in the country carried pictures of two young men who had been tarred and feathered by the IRA.
A: Oh, that wasn't done by the IRA, but by the Provisional IRA, which is a breakaway group, very nationalistic and very primitive in its ideology. As for the official end of the IRA - I work very closely with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein is the IRA's political arm. Contrary to what the British press says, the IRAs are political people. They don't run around carrying guns all day and shooting things up indiscriminately. They work politically in the trade unions, tennant organizations, and political organizations. We work with the Sin Fein organizations quite closely on specific projects essentially because the ideologies are quite similar. We consider them to be much more pragmatic than we are. And in the past and presumably again in the future, we will be glad that there are some people capable of protecting the community.
As for the tarring and feathers the Provisionals did, it was hardly anything. When I was a child in Cookstown during the IRA campaign in the 1950s there was a man who informed on his group. And he was tarred and feathered! He was lucky to be alive when they were through with him.
What happened in Belfast last month was nothing more than the dabbing of a little tar, on somebody's best Sunday suit.
But the problem with the Provisionals is not just that they tarred and feathered two young men for silly reasons "interfering with good Catholic girls" is, I think, the reason they gave. The problem with the Provisionals is that they are very militant Catholics, who identify only with the Catholic community and who have no politics which makes them ultimately reactionary by default. You can understand that if you believe no politics is right-wing politics. Well, the Provisionals engage in violent rhetoric as an overcompensation for their actual lack of numbers and ability. They are frustrated. They can only see terrorism as a means of escape. They don't believe they can beat the might of the British Army, but the situation is such that they might as well go down fighting. They feel that terrorism now is a more dignified thing to do than to go down without a fight.
Q: Are they really wrong about that?
A: I think it's wrong. They are isolating themselves from first the Protestant working-class community, and second from the very community they identify with, the Catholics.
Q: At what point do you think Northern Ireland will be ready for armed struggle?
A: There's no blueprint for armed struggle. The function of the people of Northern Ireland is to educate and organize themselves. You don't give a signal by counting the number of heads you have and then decide you are ready for armed struggle. Circumstances determine the realization of armed struggle, and in Northern Ireland you can never predict what those circumstances will be. The only thing you can say is when violence is used against us, we will assert Our right to defend ourselves against ihe violence of the State.
Q: You said something earlier about how the Irish love to make martyrs out of people they crucified when they were alive. I got the feeling after meeting you on the last trip and after going to Ireland a few weeks later that you were quickly on your way to becoming a martyr, a Saint Bernadette. Belfast was a nightmare, firebombings, sniping, murder, the most irrational kind of hatred. I really thought I would not see you alive again.
A: That's one thing I always ironically laugh at. I know that should my own people, the Irish, trample me to the ground, the day they bury me., oh, Christ, I'd hate to miss my funeral it really upsets me that I'd miss me own funeral. Because nothing I ever did in life will matter at that moment. I may, by the time they bury me, be denounced from every pulpit, from every street corner. But nobody will remember these things when I am dead. You know, even if they throw me out of the Church, popular opinion will demand that I be buried on consecrated ground. People will flock from miles around so they'll be able to say they were at Bernadette Devlin's funeral. And worse yet, they'll be sure to bury me in The Tricolour. Whatever it was they threw me out for, everyone will forget it. And the list of all the people who fought with me on the Bogside Barricades will immediately grow. Those fighters will fill the entire population of Derry, let alone Roswell Street.
Q: Do you every feel in danger?
A: I never really think of being in danger of my life. I'm a fatalist in the sense that when I die, I die...and that will be time enough.
Q: Maybe as an American, I'm too conscious of the use of assassination as a political weapon.
A: We haven't got many assassinations in Ireland these Days. It ruins a good fight, I suppose.
Q: When I was over in Ulster in 1969, most of the Irish revolutionaries I met didn't expect to live the year out.
A: We were all a little paranoid at that time. A lot of us didn't expect to live the week out. Some of us had visions of spending fifty years in prison for treason. We got over it. We quickly learned that ours would be a long fight and that most of us would live to see it through. We also learned that if we dared to struggle and dared to win, we could finally create in Ireland the kind of society that would reclaim the land of Ireland for all the people of Ireland. We know it won't be an easy fight. But we're determined to win this time.