Zofia Walczak reviews the documentary, Notes on a Political Journey, made by the filmmaker, Leila Doolan, about the political life of Bernadette Devlin MacAliskey.

In 1972, when the Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maulding stated that the British Army had only fired at Bloody Sunday protesters in self-defence, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey walked across the House of Commons and punched him. When asked by a reporter afterwards if she regretted it, she said: “I’m just sorry I didn’t get him by the throat.”

At 21, Devlin was the youngest woman ever to have been elected to the British Parliament. She was an outspoken radical socialist, activist, non-sectarian Catholic and republican feminist, plus a prominent figure in the Irish civil rights movement.

Born into poverty and an Irish Catholic minority, she politicized after witnessing police repression at a demonstration. Devlin became a student activist and developed a talent for organizing and “speechifying”.

The documentary Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey takes a journey through her early political life and looks at some of the key events in recent Irish history.

The film interweaves interviews conducted by filmmaker Lelia Doolan between 2001 and 2009 with black and white archive footage of Devlin’s speeches, interviews and activism during the years of the Troubles.

Historical and political context

Never veering into discussion about her private life, Notes on a Political Journey situates Devlin in her historical and political context rather than placing her on a pedestal.

As the main form of narration, Devlin’s straightforward way of speaking carries the film and is one of its most striking and memorable features.

She speaks about her time at university, her parents and childhood. And discusses her visit to New York (to raise money for desperately needed housing back home) and her time with the Black Panthers.

We also hear more about her views on Westminster, how she was “not interested in being part of the establishment”, and didn’t want to chat up “all those stupid people” at the bar. Her imprisonment and survival of an assassination attempt are also discussed in this in-depth feature.

Rather than an introspective analysis however, her commentary provides an outward looking glimpse at life at the time, as well as first hand accounts of demonstrations, riots and police brutality. Devlin’s freeze-frame recollection of Bloody Sunday – the realization that “it was now part of the equation that people would be killed for stating their opinions” – is particularly chilling. Families of victims had to wait almost forty years for an apology by the British Government.

Devlin states at the beginning of the film that she has survived with her “integrity for the most part in tact”, and this film is a way for her to explain how. From her refusal to partake in careerist politics, to her leaving the Irish Republican Socialist party a year after she co-founded it because she no longer agreed with its direction. She appears as an unswayable independent thinker concerned first and foremost with social justice.

While it is perhaps necessary to read more about Devlin to feel you’ve got a fuller picture, Doolan’s documentary is both a skilfully pieced together account of the Irish Civil Rights movement and a gripping portrait of an undoubtedly remarkable woman.