They were the Alpha and the Omega of the hunger strike deaths. IRA volunteer Bobby Sands and INLA volunteer Micky Devine. Bobby the first to die, Mickey the tenth and last of the now iconic Ten Men Dead, immortalised in David Beresford’s book of the same name.
Micky Devine departed from our midst 34 years ago today. At 7.48am life left his severely malnourished body. It is somewhat easier for the public to remember the first hunger striker, around whom there was massive publicity. We blanketmen, still alive, remember them all and never lose sight of the fact that as it progressed it was a case of Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. By the time Mickey Devine approached death’s portal he knew there would be no last minute intervention, nothing awaiting him but the silence of the grave and eternal nothingness. A one way ticket to Derry's City Cemetery which he bought nonetheless, and doggedly refused to relinquish, defiantly brandishing it in the faces of the high and haughty, British bishops and British blackguards, the difference not always pronounced.
I never got to know Mickey Devine. We were in separate blocks throughout the protest. The boys called him Red Mick and often his name would come up in conversation as tales were retold for the umpteenth time about everybody and everything: a foil to the enemy at the gate, tedium, more insidious than the slashed peak and uniform. The constant craving for a life free from boredom was like the mermaid that beckoned sailors to their doom. In our case it would have been the drowning of defiance and dignity. We shunned the advances.
In his book The Irish Hunger Strike Tom Collins said the name Red Mick was conferred on Micky Devine because of the colour of his hair. In the blocks it was assumed it was because of the colour of his politics. Mickey was committed to his left wing perspective. Although eulogised as “not so much a volunteer as a political radical” he was nevertheless every bit the army volunteer that Bobby Sands and the others were.
That he was vastly more politically experienced than many of his comrades was down to his involvement in helping the breakaway Derry branch of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and his membership of the Young Socialists. When it came to activism, the volunteer kicked in, shunning the militarily sedate Official IRA in favour of an INLA, now up and running.
What always struck me as particularly loathsome was the depiction of Red Mick by some writers as a lost soul with no real aim left to him in life because he had separated from his wife: why not go on hunger strike? Such a wanton devaluation of the commitment of the man, attributing to him motives stripped of politics, much like the people who jailed him were also doing. Mickey Devine had a lot to live for, not least his two children, Michael and Louise. Characterising Red Mick in such a parsimonious fashion is indicative of writers bored with the old angle after nine deaths, and craving the titillation of something new. If prostitution is a dishonourable profession it has company.
What drove Mickey Devine was, in his own words, this:
A death of dignity is infinitely preferable to indefinite torture ... vicious beatings, starving, deprivation ... obscene searching ... twenty four hours a day every day in cells described by ... the Cardinal as resembling the sewers of Calcutta.
He never lived to enjoy the fruit of his labours although many others did. Held naked in a cell for years, he died naked too, denied the ability to wear his own clothes because the British wished to promote the myth that they faced nothing more than an aggravated crime wave. It was a life of sheer deprivation but Mickey was no stranger to that, having grown up in poverty described as worse than that of most.
He once told the unctuous Basil Hume of his conditions after learning that the good cardinal was pontificating on the wrongs of violence:
I’m prepared to bet this torn smelly blanket that I’m, wearing that you can’t remember the last time you were beaten unconscious or the last time you dined on black tea and hard dry bread ... so much for Christianity.
Thirty four years after his passing we now know his death could have been avoided. But like the five others who could have survived he was told nothing about the British offer Danny Morrison brought into the jail. Brendan McFarlane alone was told in the full anticipation that he would reject it. McFarlane queered the pitch and, with the endorsement of Richard O'Rawe, accepted the offer, which in turn forced the committee managing the hunger strike to overrule him. McFarlane was always in my view a great jail leader, charismatic and courageous in equal amounts. Whatever understandable and forgivable pressures or misplaced loyalties that acted on him in the trauma laden cauldron, the time is right for him to reflect on what happened and tell it as it was. The family of Mickey Devine and the others deserve no less.
Today is Red Mick’s day, when former blanket men remember and honour him in our own quiet way, when we get up in the morning, when we lie down for the night. Before this stalwart of the Republican Socialist Movement breathed his last he said “I know now I’ll not be saved. But if I die, sure it might save big Lawrence.’
Mickey Devine understood a crucial precept of Christianity better than Cardinal Hume: greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.