Bernadette Devlin

Irish Activist, Member of Parliament

Bernadette Devlin
Evening Standard / Getty Images

Known for: Irish activist, youngest woman elected to the British Parliament (she was 21 years old)

Dates: April 23, 1947 -
Occupation: activist; member, British Parliament, from Mid-Ulster, 1969-1974
Also known as: Bernadette Josephine Devlin, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Bernadette McAliskey, Mrs. Michael McAliskey

About Bernadette Devlin McAliskey 

Bernadette Devlin, a radical feminist and Catholic activist in Northern Ireland, was a founder of People's Democracy.

After one failed attempt to be elected, she became the youngest woman ever elected to Parliament in 1969, running as a socialist.

When she was very young, her father taught her much about Irish political history. He died when she was only nine years old, leaving her mother to care for six children on welfare.  She described her experience on welfare as "the depths of degradation."  When Bernadette Devlin was eighteen, her mother died, and Devlin helped care for the other children while finishing college.  She became active in politics at Queen's University, founding a "non-partisan, non-political organization based on the simple belief that everyone should have the right to a decent life."  The group worked for economic opportunity, especially in job and housing opportunity, and drew members from different religious faiths and backgrounds.  She helped to organize protests including sit-ins.

 the group became political and ran candidates in the general election of 1969.

Devlin was part of the August 1969 "Battle of the Bogside," which attempted to exclude police from the Catholic section of Bogside.  Devlin then traveled to the United States and met with the Secretary General of the United Nations.

She was given the keys to the city of New York -- and handed them over to the Black Panther Party. When she returned, she was sentenced to six months for her role in the Bogside battle, for incitement to riot and obstruction. She served her term after being reelected to Parliament.

She published her autobiography, The Price of My Soul, in 1969, to show the roots of her activism in the social conditions in which she was raised.

In 1972, Bernadette Devlin assaulted the home secretary, Reginald Maudling, after "Bloody Sunday" when 13 people were killed in Derry when British forces broke up a meeting.

Devlin married Michael McAliskey in 1973 and lost her seat in Parliament in 1974. They were among the founders of the Irish Republican Socialist Party in 1974. Devlin ran unsuccessfully in later years for the European Parliament and the Irish legislature, the Dail Eireann. In 1980, she led marches in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, in support of IRA hunger strikers and opposing the conditions under which the strike was settled. In 1981, members of the the Unionist Ulster Defense Association attempted to assassinate the McAliskeys and they were seriously injured in the attack, despite British Army protection of their home.

 The attackers were convicted and sentenced to prison for life.

In more recent years, Devlin was in the news for her support for gays and lesbians who wanted to march in New York's Saint Patrick's Day Parade. In 1996, her daughter Róisín McAliskey was arrested in Germany in connection with an IRA bombing of a British Army barracks; Devlin protested her pregnant daughter's innocence and demanded her release.

In 2003, she was barred from entering the United States and deported on grounds of posing a "serious threat to the security of the United States," though she had been permitted entry many other times.

Background, Family:

  • Father: John James Devlin (died when Bernadette was 9)
  • Mother: Elizabeth Bernadette Devlin (died when Bernadette was 18)
  • third of six children
  • born in Cookstown, County Tyrone


    • St. Patrick's Academy, Dungannon, County Tyrone
    • Queen's University, Belfast (studied psychology): 1965 - 1969

    Marriage, Children:

    • husband: Michael McAliskey (married 1973; teacher)
    • children: Róisín Elizabeth McAliskey, Deirdre McAliskey, one other

    Religion: Roman Catholic (anti-clerical)

    Autobiography: The Price of My Soul. 1969.


    1. about the incident where police beat a man who tried to protect her at a demonstration: My reaction to what I saw was sheer horror. I could only stand rooted as the police battered and beat, and eventually I was dragged off by another student who came between me and a police baton. After that I had to be committed.
    2. If I have made any contribution, I hope it is that people in Northern Ireland think of themselves in regard to their class, as opposed to their religion or to their sex or whether they are well educated.
    3. I hope that what I did was to get rid of the feeling of guilt, of inferiority that the poor have; the feeling that somehow God is or they are responsible for the fact that they are not as rich as Henry Ford.
    4. I can think of more traumatic things than finding out that my daughter is a terrorist.
    5. I have three children and not if the British government takes all of them will they stop me opposing the inhumanity and injustice of the state.
    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Bernadette Devlin." ThoughtCo, Jan. 25, 2017, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, January 25). Bernadette Devlin. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Bernadette Devlin." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 17, 2018).