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Seventieth anniversary of Home Rule leader Devlin

(Eamon Phoenix, Irish News)

This weekend marks the seventieth anniversary of the death of Joseph Devlin, legendary MP for West Belfast, Irish Home Rule leader in the early twentieth century and social reformer.

Mr Devlin was also the architect of the AOH, once the bedrock of nationalism.

On Sunday members of the organisation will hold a wreath-laying ceremony at his grave in Milltown Cemetery and attend a memorial Mass in his honour.

The commemoration by the Clonard Division is the first to be held since the 1960s.

Mr Harry McCabe, a member of the branch, said: "Joe's devotion to Ireland and the Belfast working-class people deserves to be remembered."

Born into a poor family in Hamill Street in the Falls area in 1872, 'Wee Joe', as he was known, attended St Mary's CBS in Barrack St before working as a barman and later as a reporter in the Irish News.

The young nationalist's gift for captivating oratory and sharp political skill propelled him to the forefront of the Irish Nationalist movement, then led by John Redmond.

In 1906 Mr Devlin made his real political breakthrough when he won the West Belfast seat from the unionists by the narrow margin of 16 votes.

As one of the three leaders of the Home Rule Party he campaigned in parliament for self-government for an undivided Ireland but failed to prevent partition.

His support for recruitment during the First World War and for the 'temporary exclusion' of the six counties in 1916 marked a turning-point in his career.

His party was eclipsed by Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election but Mr Devlin – the darling of the Belfast mill-girls – defeated the Republican leader, Eamon de Valera in Belfast Falls.

An avid social reformer, he exposed the exploitation in the Belfast linen mills at Westminster, forcing the government to introduce more humane working conditions.

In the 1920s he opened 'The Grand', a subsidised holiday home for women workers in Bangor and sponsored the annual 'Joe Devlin excursions' to enable hundreds of deprived children to enjoy a day at the seaside.

He was chairman of the Irish News from 1905 until his death.

In 1928 Mr Devlin assumed the leadership of a united Nationalist opposition in the new Northern Ireland Parliament but he failed to win minority concessions from the unionist government and stormed out in despair in 1932 when he accused Lord Craigavon of 'rivetting sectarianism' to the Northern state.

Irish News veteran correspondent, James Kelly, who knew Mr Devlin well, recalls the "great wave of emotion" in both communities at the news of his death in 1934.

"I have never seen so many people weep so unashamedly as they did at his funeral up the Falls Road to Milltown," he said.

"It was said that Ireland was united for a day as Dublin cabinet ministers and TDs rubbed shoulders with their Stormont counterparts in the vast procession.

"Joe's advocacy of better conditions for the sweated labour in the mills was as much appreciated on the Shankill as on the Falls," Mr kelly added.

April 6, 2004

This article appeared first in the January 17, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News